I waited as long as I possibly could to write this blog. The last week has been a pretty wild rollercoaster for myself and Celts fans everywhere. Given the fact that the Nets are a sorry excuse for a franchise and their inability to win a single game in the first round, this team has been off since Monday. I cannot even tell you what the past 5 days have been like for me. It's all a blur. I know that it's still not Sunday afternoon which I find to be bullshit, but the Celtics high that I have been riding for these past 5 days could legitimately kill a normal person. I haven't felt this way in over 14 years, do you know how terrifying that is?
That's the thing with this team. Their entire turnaround, how the first series went, what now is at their doorstep, it's all a little surreal. This is either going to be one of the greatest Celtics runs of my lifetime or this is going to be something that brings me such immense pain there's a more than likely chance I simply do not make it. That's it, those two extremes. There is no in between right now and that scares the shit out of me. This team, the way they are playing could absolutely win an NBA title. So why am I terrified? Why am I not over the moon with confidence? Easy. This man exists
I know I promised to be better in that apology blog about how ashamed I was that I respected the Celts opponent in KD/Kyrie. I called it the most embarrassing mistake of my career. I'm sorry, but I can't help it. I'm doing it again. I respect Giannis way too much to not be terrified of him. I think he's earned that right.
The 2019 Playoffs are not lost on me. The Celts coming off a sweep, even taking Game 1 against the Bucks. Things felt unstoppable. We all know how that turned out. And while I know that this is a completely different situation with completely different context, we all know the Celts are currently on a revenge tour path. First it was Brooklyn, a team that bounced them out the year before. Now it's the Bucks, who kicked them out in 2019. If they are able to continue on, it could be the Heat, the team that kicked them out in 2020. That alone makes me nervous. What type of cosmic bullshit am I living through right now? Do I have to factor that into this series?
On paper, you see the Celts are fully healthy while playing at a high level, and with homecourt you'd assume this might be a quick series. I think you are a moron if you do that. These games are not played on paper. The playoffs are about matchups and execution, not what things look like on paper. If the Celtics want to win this series, they are going to have to play much better than we saw against the Nets, and that was a 4-0 sweep. I didn't really feel like they hit their ceiling in that series, so I'm going to need them to elevate their level of play.
There are a few areas I'm looking at as we prepare for what should be an all out war. With no Middleton, things change a little bit but different does not always equal easier.
The Battle Of The Point Guards
You want a non Giannis/Tatum matchup that could ultimately decide this series? May I present to you Marcus Smart vs Jrue Holiday
Their roles are virtually identical for their respective teams. Both are the very definition of elite perimeter defenders at their position who can always switch and have the strength to handle any position 1-5 without help. While Holiday may spend more time defending Jaylen or Tatum, the battle of which point guard has the better series is going to be a huge factor in how this shakes out.
They're both going to be asked to make their open threes as well. The Bucks allow the most 3PA of any team in the league, and they are going to dare Marcus to take and prove he can make his outside shot consistently. In the first round, Smart shot just 29.2% from three in catch & shoot situations (6.0 3PA). That's….very bad. Jrue Holiday shot 46.2%, but on a much lower volume (2.6 3PA). I would imagine those numbers are now going to creep up with Middleton out, but this is one of the more important aspects of this matchup. Whoever knocks down their open looks is probably going to come out on top.
With Smart, I would like to see a good balance here. Just because he's open doesn't mean he has to take it, especially with Rob back. Attack that closeout and get into the paint, and once the Bucks rotate just throw the lob to Rob, he's ready for it. When you play the Bucks it is so important to resist the urge for homerun threes and instead find ways to take as many high efficient looks as possible. Bad shots may as well be TOs and when the other end consists of trying to stop Giannis from getting to the rim, good possessions are a premium.
So what does this version of Smart look like? Sort of like this
Anyone who suggests you can "stop" Giannis is full of shit. You don't stop Giannis. What do you is you simply try and make his life as tough as possible in an effort to maybe slow him down. You do that and you live with the results. He's too strong, too powerful, gets too good a whistle and is now someone who can make FTs so there's no real "shutting Giannis down". Early in his career you could bait him to shoot jumpers because anything other than a shot at the rim was a win. Well, this year he shot 41% from the midrange which doesn't make him KD or anything but the point is that option now isn't the same sort of lock it may have been in previous seasons.
So what do the Celts do? They throw everything they have at the guy. Al I imagine will get a lot of the matchups to start, and where he has to be really disciplined is keeping his arms high when Giannis drives. The europ step is coming, you have to find a way to move your feet and keep your hands high. Rob will then have to do what he does best and time his weakside help to perfection. You need to meet Giannis at in the paint with multiple bodies and a shit ton of length. The Celts held Giannis to around 53% shooting this season which seems high but then you realize he shot 55.3% for the season. It's not perfect, but they have the length and size to at least try and make things tough.
That's only part of the equation though. The second part comes from your guards. You have to find a way to get offensive fouls or else you're kind of fucked. The good news is Derrick White is 2nd in the NBA in charges drawn with 25. Smart has 16. Everyone is going to have to be on a string to pull that off, and there are going to be times when they establish position and Giannis still gets the blocking call. You have to play through that and be committed to the plan. I think we're going to see guys like Smart/White/Grant have a shit ton of charge attempts. You want Giannis to not only be thinking about the size and length he's facing as a primary defender, but the weakside guy sliding in to draw the charge since EVERYONE knows Giannis is going to play towards contact.
I imagine we'll see the same sort of physical approach with Giannis off ball, but I doubt it has the same impact at throwing him off his game like it did for KD because Giannis is built like a Greek God.
Let's also not sleep on Tatum's length. He's leveled up defensively as well, and that length can be used as a weapon, especially as a weakside defender.
Defending The Three Point Line
The Bucks take a shit ton of threes, we know this. They also have a ton of shooting depth even outside of Middleton. We know this. We also have to acknowledge how much of a Celtics Killer Bobby Portis is. He's for sure an X Factor in this series, and his production against the Celts has been incredible this year. He's averaging 17/8 against BOS while shooting 55/38% from the floor. All you have to do is look at how he performed in the two games the Bucks won
Game 3: 16/10/4 with 2-4 from deep
Game 4: 17/7/1 with 3-4 from deep
How the Celts handle Bobby Portis is extremely important. If they are so hell bent on helping at the nail to prevent any Giannis shenanigans, they're playing with fire because Portis will be outside the arc ready to make a catch and shoot three. Usually, it's going to be in the corner which he can make with his eyes closed. He's a high energy player that usually is the one that sparks a Bucks run. Then Giannis takes over with some transition/plays at the rim and the Bucks start to get some separation.
Remember, this is a Celtics team that just gave up 42.2% shooting from deep against the Nets. Their 3PA were low, but because most of them consisted of guys taking wide open catch & shoot looks given the Celts had to collapse defensively, the same shit could very well happen in this series only you're adding it to the Giannis factor. Portis, Connaughton, Allen, Holiday, Lopez can all shoot open threes. The way Lopez/Portis help spread the floor makes things even tougher to stop Giannis, you have to pick your poison. How the Celts defend that three point line is going to go a long way.
The biggest adjustment the Celts are going to have to make offensively is realize that this is not the Brooklyn Nets defense. How many times did we see Smart/Tatum/Brown simply be able to find a mismatch and attack the Nets north/south. Whether it was Kyrie or Curry or Mills or Dragic or Blake or Claxton, none of it mattered.
The Buck provide a much bigger challenge since they are so much better at defending the point of attack. Jrue is going to make Tatum's life much tougher than anything the Nets threw at him, and the same is true for Jaylen. Even if they hunt mismatches like Connaughton or Allen, those two are still better defenders than what the Nets threw out there, so that adjustment is huge. I still like Jaylen/Tatum's chances against those secondary defenders given their size and strength, but this series will require both to consistently make heavily contested shots.
You have to remember that even with someone like Tatum attacking those mismatches, fucking Giannis is roaming and ready to meet you at the rim. Not to mention Lopez who is a fantastic defender at the rim without fouling. Lopez allowed just 61.5% shooting in the restricted area, and 34% in the paint in the first round. Last year, it was 58.9% at the rim during the year and 58.2% during the playoffs. Given how much driving matters to how Tatum/Jaylen score, the rim production is going to be massive.
Where the Bucks have been susceptible is in P&R defense. They rank in the 35th percentile defending the roll man in P&R so far in these playoffs. They also really struggle guarding the ball handler in P&R. You know what that means? Rob should be feasting on lobs all series long. The Celts can force the Bucks to make decisions that play into their advantage the same way the Bucks can force the Celts to collapse. They have shooter to spread the floor, they have elite rim runners, it's not exactly going to be a picnic slowing down this offense either.
The name of the game will be paint touches. These are two of the best defenses at limiting opponents points in the paint (MIL 1st, BOS 3rd) so whoever finds a way to win that battle is going to be in good shape. For my money, P&R'ing the Bucks to death is a great way to do it. I wouldn't think we see too many Jaylen/Tatum screens because you could just be going from Giannis to Holiday, but I do expect to see whoever is guarding Marcus if it isn't Holiday be put in P&R situations. Marcus as a screener can work, we just saw it.
This is a huge one for this series. Giannis is going to get his whistles. There are going to be more than a few 50/50 calls that are not going to go the Celtics way. Too often do we see this team allow their mental state to get fucked up due to calls. That then guarantees they are going to force things on the other end, probably turn it over, and things snowball. Every loss to the Bucks usually happens the same way. It's a close game, some momentum calls start to go against them, they lose focus and suddenly haven't scored in 3 minutes. Now the Bucks are on a 8-0 run and the lead is pushed to 12+.
The formula is the same for the Bucks as it was the Nets. You need to rebound, you need to move the ball, and you cannot turn it over. When the Celts start to lose their composure they tend to get careless. Both in terms fo ball security and shot selection. A bad three against the Bucks because you're pissed about a call and want to make it all up in one possession may as well be a turnover.
What we did see is this team have good mental toughness in terms of punching back and executing down the stretch. That's the good news and a good example of what good composure can bring. But the second you lose that shit against a team like the Bucks, you're cooked.
The door is wide open for the Boston Celtics to keep this train moving forward. They have the talent, they have the health, they have the homecourt advantage, and they've had the rest. You couldn't possibly ask for a better situation as you enter this war of a series. If you want to get to where you want to go, you have to beat the best. That was true with KD and now it's true with Giannis. This is why winning NBA titles is not easy. But it's also not easy to play this Celtics team. Factoring in the playoffs, they are 39-12 since 12/31. Since March 1st, they are 19-4. It's going to require the best basketball we've seen this team play to date, but I've never been more confident that they are ready for the challenge. It won't always be perfect, but it's time to avenge the 2019 second round loss.
Prediction: Celtics in 6