MILWAUKEE — A cursory glance at stat sheets from the first two games of this playoff series could make one believe that Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo has been dominant against the Celtics.
The two-time NBA MVP is averaging 26 points, 11 rebounds, and 9.5 assists.
But Boston coach Ime Udoka looks at the situation from a wider lens. He sees that Antetokounmpo is shooting just 38.4 percent from the field. He sees how the Celtics have forced him to commit 11 turnovers. And he sees how some minor adjustments in Game 2, when the Celtics trusted their top defenders to battle Antetokounmpo one-on-one, yielded encouraging results.
“He’s basically 76 percent at the rim [this season],” Udoka said. “We’ve held him to 50 or less. So we’re guarding him well one-on-one, but want to mix it up and give him different looks.
“I felt after Game 1 that we helped inappropriately at times and gave up some of those threes when guys were in good position to guard him, or he kind of baited a little bit. So we want to be a little more deliberate.”
The Celtics smothered Antetokounmpo in the first half of their Game 2 win, mostly turning him into an ineffective perimeter shooter. That helped them vault to a 25-point halftime lead that was never in danger. But in the second half, Antetokounmpo provided a hint of what could be coming in Saturday’s Game 3, as he got back to lowering his head and bulldozing to the rim.
The Celtics certainly noticed that shift, too, and they say they will be prepared. But the energy from a lively Milwaukee crowd could give Antetokounmpo even more of a push.
“He’s going to come out aggressive,” Udoka said. “Our guys are bodying up and guarding him one-on-one at times and understanding he’s going to adjust to that and be more aggressive. We still want to keep him off-balance at times and just get to their shooters.”
The Celtics could be helped by the return of Marcus Smart, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. Smart missed Game 2 because of a quadriceps contusion he suffered during Game 1. But he said Thursday there is “a strong likelihood” that he will be back, and on Friday, Udoka said Smart would be listed as probable for Game 3.
Smart’s game is built on physicality, and he insisted that he would not return unless he was able to be the menacing defender he usually is, so there should be no visible difference in his play.
“[The training staff] is doing everything they can, and I’m doing everything on my part on my end to get back on the court,” Smart said.
Robert Williams, who returned in Game 3 of the first-round series against the Nets after missing nearly a month because of knee surgery, and clearly had to knock off some rust, appears to be back to his usual shot-swatting, lob-catching self. So the Celtics should mostly be back to full strength.
But the Bucks remain without All-Star forward Khris Middleton, who is sidelined with a sprained knee and has already been ruled out of Games 3 and 4.
The fast-break chances and strong perimeter shooting of Milwaukee’s role players in Game 1 masked Middleton’s absence. But in Game 2, the Celtics solved those issues by making shots to reduce the Bucks’ transition opportunities, cutting down on turnovers, and having a more focused plan against Antetokounmpo. The result raised questions about whether the Bucks have enough firepower to advance without their sharpshooter.
The Bucks at least should get a boost from returning to Fiserv Forum.
They had a chance to secure home-court advantage in the second round of the playoffs simply by winning their final regular-season game against the undermanned Cavaliers.
Instead, the Bucks sat their top players and took the loss, seeming to value avoiding the Nets in the first round more than having a home edge in the second. And they won one of two games in Boston, so the Celtics will have to secure at least one road win to advance.
Smart, for one, said he’s looking forward to the challenge and the environment.
“You’ve got to go in and you’ve got to be able to throw that punch first, knowing everybody is against you and you’re going to have a battle on your hands,” he said. “So, it definitely feels good, and I think as a competitor, the good ones and the great ones, they enjoy it.”