While his first adjustment was forced— Ime Udoka had to scramble for a point guard after Marcus Smart was scratched two hours prior to Game 2 with a quadriceps contusion— the rest of the coach’s strategy changes worked to near perfection Tuesday at TD Garden.
The Milwaukee Bucks practically invited the Celtics to take 3-pointers in Game 1 and the Celtics accepted but attempted far too many, seemingly afraid to challenge the Bucks’ interior defense. They played Game 1 intimidated by Milwaukee’s big man, mentally turning Brook Lopez into Wilt Chamberlain.
The result was the worst offensive game of the season. Udoka showed his team repeated film of its mistakes, passing up open shots, maneuvering tentatively in the half-court offense, rushing 3-pointers to avoid the onrushing defense.
And the response from these multiple film sessions over the past three days was optimism. The Celtics were convinced they would be better. They were convinced if they played similar defense to Game 1 but were more confident and efficient offensively, they would prevail.
The result from these adjustments was a 109-86 victory, a game the Celtics never trailed. They took a 25-point lead at halftime with unconscious 3-point shooting and then staved off several Milwaukee runs with timely shots and strong defense, especially against relentless superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“That was the thing we really talked about in Game 1, where we’ve been a bigger, physical team all year and didn’t love how we reacted to them being physical, picking up full court,” Udoka said. “We adjusted well. We learned from things from Game 1. We knew we didn’t act accordingly the way we were playing. We haven’t been outmuscled like that all year and I think our guys took pride in that.”
It was the Celtics’ defensive adjustment against the two-time MVP that was crucial to their success Tuesday. They paid far too much attention to Antetokounmpo in Game 1, and he burned over-aggressive defenders by passing out to open shooters. He finished with 12 assists.
On Tuesday, he had seven assists, but also six turnovers. The Bucks, besides Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday, canned six 3-pointers in Game 1. They had one in Game 2.
Udoka assigned forward Grant Williams to offer resistance against Antetokoumpo and they also stuck to the Milwaukee shooters near the 3-point line. Antetokounmpo still scored 28 points but it required 27 shots. He is 20-for-52 shooting in the series, and his impact in Game 2 was limited because his teammates didn’t feed off the Celtics’ emphasis on him defensively.
Udoka wanted anyone besides Antetokounmpo to score. They consistently failed. Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton, and Bobby Portis thought first before shooting. They had defenders in their faces , hands in the air, and they weren’t nearly as effective or impactful.
Holiday was met with Jaylen Brown as a primary defender instead of the injured Smart and Brown’s size bothered him.
The Celtics were more like themselves than in Game 1. They moved the ball swiftly on offense, passing up the good shot for the better shot. They discovered getting the 7-foot Lopez moving around limited his effectiveness.
“Not just settling for the contested threes but attacking certain guys who were closing out on the perimeter,” Udoka said of the revamped offensive approach. “We let them off the hook with Lopez and some of those guys closing out hard. Tonight it was different as far as attacking them. We got much easier shots.”
Brown scored 25 of his 30 points in the first half after having one of the worst playoff games of his career Sunday.While the Celtics fed him the ball consistently, Brown was more selective in his shot selection. He didn’t force anything.
He began the night with a mid-range jumper as he dribbled and stopped just feet from the teeth of the Milwaukee defense for an open shot. He hit three mid-range jumpers in the first nine minutes.
“We can’t let one game dictate how this series is going to go,” Brown said. “We have to come out and be aggressive from the get-go, take what the defense gives us, and make them respond from there. We got some threes to go in, so mid-ranges to go in and kind of opened up the game a little bit.”
The Celtics were not discouraged after their Game 1 performance. It was quite the opposite. They have bounced back from difficult defeats several times this season and some of their Game 1 mistakes were so glaring — perhaps a byproduct of rust or facing a much more physical and talented team in the second-round series — that they knew it was an aberration, not the rule.
And again, they proved resilient enough to dominate the Bucks in the first half, and play well enough in the second half to prevent Milwaukee from cutting to within single digits, even with Antetokounmpo determined to attack the rim on every possession.
The Celtics have not only evened this series, changed the narrative for the next 72 hours until Game 3, and seized momentum with Smart expected to return Saturday, but they proved to themselves they were capable of punching back, capable of making those critical in-series adjustments that are critical to deep playoff runs.
“We wasn’t as prepared as we should have been as a unit,” Brown said. “Today was a different story. How you respond is everything in this league. All the adversity we faced, all the negativity we had to overcome. You channel it into these moments and you don’t let your team lose.”