As the Celtics studied film of their Game 1 loss to the Bucks over the last two days, it verified coach Ime Udoka’s initial suspicions.
His team, which had used a physical style to soar toward the top of the Eastern Conference in recent months, had appeared meek against the defending NBA champions and their frontline of trees. Udoka knew that if that did not change quickly, this team’s big dreams would be deferred.
The problem for the Celtics was that they needed to return to their tough, bruising, fearless style without their most tough, bruising, fearless player.
Marcus Smart, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, missed Game 2 on Tuesday night because of a quadriceps contusion. But the others ensured that his absence was just a footnote, as they dominated the first half and secured a wire-to-wire, 109-86 win.
“We haven’t been outmuscled like [we were in Game 1] all year,” Udoka said, “and I think our guys took pride in that, took that to heart.”
Jayson Tatum described the predicament even more directly.
“I mean, we were [ticked] off from how we played last game,” he said, “from top to bottom.”
The Celtics have done enough this season to make Game 1 seem like the outlier of these two performances. Tuesday felt more familiar.
Jaylen Brown, who was held to 12 points Sunday, arrived at TD Garden more than four hours before tipoff, and his focus and intensity were obvious to his teammates.
“If I was a betting man, I would have bet that JB was going to have a great game,” Tatum said. “He set the tone.”
In the first half, Brown made 9 of 10 shots and erupted for 25 of his game-high 30 points, helping stake the Celtics to a 65-40 lead. Tatum finished with 29 points and Grant Williams added 21. The Celtics made 20 of 43 3-pointers, while the Bucks connected on just 3 of 18.
Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo had 28 points on 11-of-27 shooting, along with 9 rebounds and 7 assists. But he was just 2 for 12 in the first half, and his slow start sent the Bucks into a ditch that was just too deep.
Udoka acknowledged that after a first-round sweep of a Nets team built on finesse rather than tenacity, the Bucks’ tenacious approach was a shock to the system in Game 1. Milwaukee’s guards picked up Celtics ball handlers deep in the backcourt, and once Boston pushed through those weeds, Milwaukee’s rim protectors were lurking.
The Celtics either unsuccessfully challenged them, or launched 3-pointers. But Udoka reminded his players, particularly Tatum and Brown, that they can still be dangerous attacking close-outs and settling into mid-range situations that can leave the Bucks’ big men in no-man’s land. Whenever there are multiple threats, new openings are created elsewhere.
“They have good rim protectors and they protect the paint,” Udoka said, “but it’s not Wilt Chamberlain out there. There’s guys we can get downhill and attack, and we’ve got guys that can finish.”
Along the perimeter, the Celtics used crisp, constant ball movement to ensure that the Bucks were chasing them rather than deterring them.
“In the first game, we did kind of a poor job just getting rushed, just kind of forcing shots up,” Williams said. “The first three that we saw that was open, we shot no matter if there was three people flying at us. So tonight, we just knew that the more we moved it, the more opportunity that would be open.”
At the other end of the floor, the Celtics made some minor adjustments to the way they defended Antetokounmpo. He is strong, and when he wants to get to the rim, he is relentless. But in Game 1, the Celtics were perhaps too consumed with stopping him from doing that.
Boston has the league’s No. 1-ranked defense, and that means it has a stable of capable defenders. But sometimes help arrived when it was not necessary, allowing Antetokounmpo to spray passes to wide-open 3-point shooters. In Game 2, there were more instances in which players such as Grant Williams, Al Horford, and Robert Williams took turns on Antetokounmpo without the cavalry.
And in the first half the former league MVP began to settle for long jump shots despite having little success making them.
“We talked about guarding him a little more one on one,” Udoka said. “We feel like we have the defensive guys to do it.”
Antetokounmpo turned into more of a battering ram in the second half and poured in 17 points in the third quarter, perhaps setting the stage for his Game 3 approach. But by then it was too late to really salvage anything on this night. The Bucks trailed by double digits for the entire second half.
Still, this series now shifts to Milwaukee with the Bucks having wrestled home-court advantage away from the Celtics. For Boston, Tuesday was more about keeping this season afloat than moving onto something bigger.
But it will probably have some reinforcements, at least. Smart stood for most of Tuesday’s game, barking instructions and working officials during timeouts. But the Celtics are confident that he’ll be back for Game 3.
“This series is going to get real grimy and dirty and nasty,” Brown said, “and we need Marcus to do what he does best.”