Eastern Conference Switcharoo: While Celtics Unable to Connect Early On, Bucks Have Buckled Up

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Last spring, the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks met in the first round of the playoffs and endured a grueling 7-game series. Despite winning 55 games and finishing with the #2 seed, the Celtics entered the playoffs without Kyrie Irving, their offensive catalyst. They’d played the whole year without Gordon Hayward, but the loss of Kyrie a month before the playoffs seemed to limit any realistic ambition the team had. Perhaps “realistic” is the word to focus on. When expectations are low, its easier for a team to feel the flow.

Expectations often determine our analysis of what we see. Before Hayward went down in Game 1, people saw Jaylen Brown as a talented yet erratic young wing. Highly athletic and great defensive potential, with a shot that was erratic at best and difficulty with ball handling. By Game 82 of last year, Jaylen had shown he was capable of knocking down three-pointers regularly, even developing a deadly left corner 3 (30–62, 48.4%). Overall, Brown’s 39.5% from deep was crucial to the 55-win season. This year, that number has dropped to 26.4%. Shooting is about repetition, confidence and flow. Right now, nobody on the team outside of Kyrie Irving and Marcus Morris is consistently feeling the flow.

Back to last year’s playoff match-up:

When we break it down, what did the Celtics lose when Irving went down, and what did they gain? They gained a green light that infused guard Terry Rozier with swagger. Rozier averaged 17.6 points, 6.7 assists to only 1.5 turnovers, and 4.3 rebounds, on 38% from deep over those seven games against Milwaukee. Rozier indeed rose to the occasion. Brown shot 38% from deep and averaged 17.9 points and 5 rebounds.

While providing oomph for the offense, the defense Rozier played on opposing point guard Eric Bledsoe was critical in advancing. Jaylen was part of the multi-pronged defense that kept Giannis from completely obliterating the Celtics, and forced the Bucks to take enough contested threes from non-snipers: Tony Snell, Jabari Parker, Thon Maker and Bledsoe.

Imbalance from the Tip

The imbalance created with Hayward’s entrance back into the lineup was somewhat expected. The team has been trying to find their way with Gordon Hayward back in the lineup. Hayward is clearly 70–80% of where he’d like to be right now. The second surgery he unexpectedly dealt with last spring set him further back and limited his summer workouts. He averaged about one dunk per game with Utah in 2016–17. This year, he has three dunks in 18 games. Hayward’s explosiveness off the bounce was not going to return immediately, but it’s gotten to the point where the starting five had a miserable 90.1 offensive rating. Coach Brad Stevens has recently removed Hayward from the starting five, into a bench facilitator role, akin to Evan Turner’s role a few years back.

This move should stretch the defense, with Marcus Morris and his career high 45% shooting from beyond the arc. Aron Baynes’ screens may be another key factor missing from last year’s offense. Baynes is thought of as a burly defense-first big, but he uses his wide body to open things up for others. By removing Baynes from the starting lineup, the screens haven’t been so wide. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown need that extra step.

Morris into the Starting Five

With the big contract and with Hayward’s potential when healthy, the team has no choice but to let him work his way back into form, but the bumps are that much bumpier for this offense. Through 18 games, they rank 27th in offensive rating. Only three teams are less efficient than the Celtics because only Kyrie can consistently beat his man off the dribble. Hayward, Tatum, Brown and Rozier should all be able to provide some penetration to bend the defense and work for those corner threes and pocket passes into the easier mid-range looks that they found last year. With fewer openings, the team has struggled to get to the free-throw line, 28th in the league in free-throws per field-goal attempt.

This year’s Bucks has much more shooting surrounding Giannis and a quick-passing offensive style incorporated by new coach Mike Budenholzer. Milwaukee added center Brook Lopez, whose range has always been impressive for such a giant man. Lopez and perennially underappreciated swingman Khris Middleton are combining to average 14 three-point-attempts per game, both shooting near 42%. As a result, the Bucks are attacking wider openings in the defense than they’ve ever seen. Like the Rockets, the Bucks playoff fortunes may hinge on maintaining a 35–40% rate on those threes.

The Bucks are 13–4 while averaging an NBA-best 121 points per game, while playing at the 4th fastest pace. While the Bucks have played only 2 of their scheduled 15 back-to-backs, their schedule has been the 2nd most difficult in the NBA so far, while the Celtics have faced the 8th toughest schedule.

Great Expectations

Why am I focused on that series? Imagine a few more of Milwaukee’s three-pointers dropped or a few less of Jaylen’s dropped. We’d be talking about last year’s Celtics as a team that gave a valiant effort but came up short because of injury. And we’d be talking about a Bucks team that may have made the NBA Finals despite the fact that they hadn’t provided Giannis with enough spacing. Maybe not. Maybe the Sixers, who lost two games of the 5 game series with Boston in spectacular fashion, would’ve beaten those Bucks. Something tells me that Cleveland would’ve had a harder time snuffing out the Bucks than they did the Celtics in Game 7 of last year’s East Finals. Or maybe that was the true barometer of what that Celtics team was capable of. Three-pointers are easier to make with fresh legs. The playoffs started and the C’s had enough bounce in their step to make them. By the 19th playoff game, both Rozier and Brown were experiencing a level of fatigue they hadn’t been through before. Or maybe with players like Rozier and Jaylen Brown, you have to realize that sometimes they’ll go in, and other times they won’t. But when they don’t it can steamroll, because they don’t have the reserve of a long career of making those shots to mentally rely on. The doubts may get heavier.

Rozier: Shots Come and Go

Rozier’s shooting in the East Finals against the Cavs was a big reason they didn’t advance. He went 13 of 51 from deep over those 7 games, including 0 of 10 from deep and 2 of 14 overall in that fateful Game 7.

Overall those three rounds of the playoffs, Celtics fans witnessed a stretch of play that was probably peak-Terry Rozier. Then it ended with an ice bucket of a game. And now Kyrie is back in place manning the point.

Rozier’s swagger is clearly gone at the moment, though it returned for a game at Utah which Irving missed due to personal reasons. In that one, he connected on 5 of 8 from deep. Since then, he’s 3 of 20. Teams will no doubt pursue Rozier this summer in free-agency. He would fill a desperate need for Phoenix, Orlando, Detroit, and a few other teams. He’s a starting-level point guard, but he’s having a tough time making the most of his shortened minutes at the moment.

Where They Stand

The Celtics just blew out the very young Atlanta Hawks tonight. As of tonight, their record is 10–9. Only two of those nine losses stand out as warnings: a 93–90 loss to Orlando at home in the 4th game of the season and Wednesday night’s 117–109 home loss to the Knicks. The other losses were road losses to playoff teams, though Charlotte is on the bubble, and Utah has started miserably, but is still likely to make the West’s top 8.

The schedule eases up a bit in December. After this current three-game road trip through Atlanta, Dallas and New Orleans, the Celtics finish November with a three-day break before Cleveland at home and Minnesota on the road. Of December’s first seven opponents, only New Orleans should worry the Celtics. Then again, they just lost to the Knicks at home, so assuming wins feels tough. I’m going to assume we just saw the low point of their season, and that they’ll be 5–8 games over .500 by the time they face the Sixers on Christmas.

The Road Ahead to East Playoff Positioning

The Toronto Raptors will be a legitimate force deep into the playoffs. Kawhi hasn’t skipped a beat. He is the silent assassin. Never rushed as he backs down smaller defenders. Never careless with the ball. Longer than 95% of the men charged with defending him. Speaking of length: Pascal Siakam has made the leap a year or two earlier than anyone expected. I’m genuinely afraid of Toronto and Milwaukee. The 76ers acquiring Jimmy Butler and relegating the Markelle Fultz experiment to back-burner status means the Sixers will improve as season goes on. The Sixers will add a shooter before the deadline.

I expect the conference semifinals will be very tough and even. The Indiana Pacers will likely finish 5th, better than the rest of the pack. This means Boston has to finish in the top 3 to avoid Indiana in round one. We’re less than a quarter of the way through the season, but there is going to be a genuine fight for securing home court in the East this year.

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