Game 1 of the Bucks-Celtics series seemed to prove that there were little to no overarching takeaways from the first round of the playoffs that could have been used to predict how this game would go. The Bucks were not the world-beaters they looked to be in their four-game sweep of the Pistons; the Celtics were not the shaky, but talented squad that required strong second-half pushes in order to beat a Victor Oladipo-less Pacers team—albeit that series also only took four games. No, this first game was quite the opposite, in fact, and Boston took Game 1 in Milwaukee 112-90 in a contest that was not as close as the 22-point margin might indicate.
That level of dominance isn’t something that can be explained with superficial analysis based on four games against inferior opponents. This type of beatdown that the Celtics gave the Bucks indicated that they knew what their opponent’s kryptonite was and kept bringing it out until Superman was totally dead. It should come as no surprise then that the big reason for Boston’s victory came from how the team defended Giannis whenever he entered the paint. To put it mildly, the guy was mugged whenever he got near the hoop. This was all thanks to the defensive efforts of Al Horford.
The strategy was based on the fact that most of Giannis’s baskets against the Pistons, as well as those against other big-name opponents during the regular season, came from using his incredible reach and height to truck any defender in his way inside. Usually, it resulted in unreal dunks that came at the end of Euro steps that started somewhere out near the three-point line. Most teams would approach this by having some lumbering big try and guard Giannis one-on-one while trying to account for the congregation of shooters Milwaukee had in the remaining positions. Those teams would often fail because either a) the lumbering big was incapable of playing defense on Giannis or b) Giannis’s teammates were able to force enough off-ball rotations to find an opening behind the arc to turn a tough dunk into a layup.
The problem that the Celtics noticed was that Giannis much preferred option A over option B—the antithesis of Ben Simmons—and they adjusted their defense accordingly. Not only would Horford guard Giannis one-on-one, but as the Greek Freak made his way towards the basket, other Boston defenders would help swarm the paint while keeping an eye on their man on the three-point line. Most Milwaukee possessions ended up looking like this as a result.
The Celtics held one of the frontrunners for this season’s MVP award to 22 points on 7-of-21 shooting, eight rebounds and two assists. ESPN Stats & Info points out that he was was 2-10 when Al Horford or Aron Baynes guarded him, and he shot just 4-15 in the paint.
If this were Simmons, this would be the part of the blog where I’d decry this player’s lack of a jumper as part of the problem. It’s kind of the case here—though a player of Giannis’s size and strength suddenly getting an above-average shooting stroke would be the subject of a supernatural investigation—but the bigger issue is Giannis believing he can dominate the paint on his own like he did all season. Boston already made it clear that that’s just not going to happen this series, and Giannis’s commitment to the drive is only going to make things easier for Celtics defenders to cheat over and have an easier time playing help defense (which, again is how you get that screenshot above).
Boston busted Milwaukee’s offensive system wide open, but that’s no reason for concern. The issues the Bucks faced in this game are fixable. Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez need to take more than five shots a piece, Pat Connaughton has no business playing 24 minutes in a playoff game, and Giannis needs to have more than two measly assists if he’s going to be the primary ball handler. It’ll also help to know that the Celtics probably won’t shoot 54 percent from the field too often.
Of course, solutions to those issues are easier said than done. This strategy to take Giannis out of the game should have been obvious from the jump, and the Bucks just weren’t ready for it. If Mike Budenholzer had a hard time seeing that coming, I can only imagine the damage Connaughton’s minutes will have to inflict on the team in order to warrant getting benched.