MILWAUKEE — Facing a 3-2 deficit, the Celtics will try to keep their season alive in Game 6 of this Eastern Conference semifinal against the Bucks on Friday night. Here are nine thoughts on the thrilling series:
▪ So, what actually happened on that sideline inbounds play with the Celtics trailing by 1 point with 11.4 seconds left in Wednesday night’s Game 5? Coach Ime Udoka said they were hoping to get the ball to Jayson Tatum so he could attack a mismatch, most likely a switch that left him guarded by Bobby Portis or Pat Connaughton.
But Al Horford appeared to be late in setting a screen for Tatum on the weak side, and with Boston out of timeouts, Marcus Smart was forced to improvise. He ran toward the ball, caught the inbounds pass from Derrick White, and actually got a step on Connaughton as he slashed toward the rim. He just never saw Jrue Holiday swoop in and swallow up the attempt before pegging it off Smart and out of bounds. Yes, there was time for Smart to pull the ball back out and get it to Tatum somehow, but he made the right call looking to capitalize on the brief opening. Afterward, Smart was looking toward the other side of the court, confused and frustrated, and no one was looking at Smart that way.
▪ White has taken some lumps for his erratic shooting since joining the Celtics in February, but he has been invaluable against the Bucks. Through five games, the Celtics have seven five-man lineups that have played 10 minutes or more together. White is part of each of the four that have a positive net rating, and he is not in any of the three with a negative net rating. He’s the only player on the team who can make that claim.
The lineup of White, Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Horford, and Smart has outscored the Bucks by a blistering 31.5 points per 100 possessions.
▪ The Tatum, Brown, Horford, Smart, Grant Williams lineup that has started the last two games with Robert Williams out, meanwhile, has been the one used most often. It also has been walloped by 18.2 points per 100 possessions, mostly by the Bucks’ starters. Udoka values Grant Williams’s physicality against Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the Bucks star is still mostly having his way. And Williams is just 2 for 13 from the 3-point line over the last three games. It’s also concerning that he passed up some open looks in Game 5. Williams became an invaluable floor spacer this season, and Boston can’t afford to have his confidence dented now.
▪ The Bucks were 40 for 133 from the 3-point line in this series before going 6 for 6 in the fourth quarter of Game 5. Interestingly, the Celtics did not even attempt a 3-pointer during that period.
▪ Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s decision to stick with veteran guard George Hill over Jevon Carter over the last three games has been puzzling. Hill made his series debut in Game 3 after missing a month because of an abdominal strain, and his appearances have been messy.
Plus-minus numbers can be deceiving, but Hill was minus-15 during his 13 minutes on Wednesday, and it felt like it. He was minus-6 in Game 4 and minus-1 in Game 3. In other words, the Bucks have gone 2-1 over the last three games, despite being outscored by 22 points during Hill’s 47 minutes on the court.
The Celtics have relentlessly hunted the 36-year-old guard when he is on defense, and he has provided nothing on offense, going 1 for 2 from the field. The Celtics’ approach against Hill has been obvious, but Udoka was also transparent about it.
“I played with George as a rookie in San Antonio [in 2008],” Udoka said after Game 4, “so I know a bit about George and tried to take advantage of that.”
Carter, meanwhile, helped hound Boston’s ball handlers throughout Milwaukee’s Game 1 win. He was plus-25 in 22 minutes in that game, and minus-2 in a 23-point loss in Game 2. One player makes life difficult for opposing guards while the other is hunted by them. It seems like the choice should be clear.
▪ Although the Celtics’ situation might seem dire, they are actually just 1.5-point underdogs for Game 6.
▪ Antetokounmpo was gassed in the fourth quarter of his team’s Game 4 loss. But he seemed to hold up better in Game 5, and the Celtics might have actually helped his cause. Boston has been focused on limiting Milwaukee’s transition opportunities, and it did a good job of that Wednesday, when the Bucks mustered just 7 fast-break points. But the faster pace also leads Antetokounmpo to expend more energy. The Celtics would certainly rather not see him soaring in for fast-break dunks, of course.
▪ When the Celtics inbounded the ball from the far baseline trailing by 3 points with 5.9 seconds left, they actually had an excellent opportunity. Wes Matthews fell as Tatum streaked down the right wing. Then Matthews stood up and fell again, as if he was in the middle of a bad dream. Tatum signaled for the ball and Smart appeared to notice him, but Smart’s second dribble upcourt was a bad one and threw off his rhythm. Holiday, ever the opportunist, had little trouble swooping in for the game-clinching steal. It would have been a long pass to Tatum, too, and Antetokounmpo, who was lurking on the back line, doesn’t need many strides to make up ground.
▪ It’s hard to envision Khris Middleton returning during this series. The Bucks All-Star forward has been sidelined for three weeks because of a knee sprain and is gradually increasing his activity level, but even if he’s close to ready, it could be a risk for Milwaukee to throw him into this intense, physical series without even taking part in a practice. There’s no time to knock off rust. If he returned in Game 6, though, it would certainly give the home crowd a jolt.