With just a half game separating them, the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors each faced off against champions last night in a late season game. The 2009 Champs, the Lakers, squeaked out a victory. However, the 2008 Champs, the Celtics, could not close out in the fourth quarter to defeat Milwaukee. Last night’s game was telling. It not only detailed how the Bucks won an important game against a top five team, but also why they are a good match up against the Celtics. While I would not yet favor the Bucks in a series against the Celtics, they could make playoff life hell for them in a grueling six or seven game series. Here’s how the Bucks won last night, and why the Celtics would prefer not to see them once playoff season begins.
The intangibles usually favor the Celtics in most games. They have a veteran squad that knows the value of playing tough, physical defense. They jaw at lesser players. They hustle for boards and deflections. The only problem with this advantage is that against a mentally tougher team, the Celtics cannot rely on it. Over the season, the Bucks have taken on the persona of their coach, Scott Skiles. They are easily the scrappiest squad in the East. They hustle defensively, for each board, and for every loose ball. Last night, the Bucks were quicker to the boards, made defensive rotations quickly and effectively, and contested every loose ball. There were very few cheap baskets for the Celtics. More importantly, the Celtics could not run fast breaks due to the contested nature of nearly every rebound. One sequence in the second quarter personified this difference perfectly. After walking the ball down court, Nate Robinson beat Charlie Bell on a backdoor cut. Three Bucks collapsed to the lane and forced Robinson to make a cross court pass to Rasheed Wallace. Wallace was briefly open for three, but by the time he caught the ball, Carlos Delfino was in his face. He swung the ball to a cutting Marquis Daniels. Kurt Thomas rotated to him, blocking his shot. Three passes and movement all around the court resulted in nothing for the Celtics because of Milwaukee hustle.
Those who remember the Celtics and Bulls slugging it out last year, in possibly the most competitive playoff series of the decade, know that the Celtics have trouble against teams that are shooting well from the perimeter. Their defense is tuned to stopping penetration, or stifling post play, and then recovering to make jump shots tough. The Bucks, like the Bulls last year, do create shots off the dribble, but they rarely go all the way into the lane. Most of their shots are set jumpers or pull up jumpers. Their ability to hit these shots at a good percentage negates the Celtics defensive strengths. Help comes late, or not at all, allowing the Bucks to get many 1-on-1 opportunities. Deep shots killed the Celtics last night. The Bucks went 8-17 from the 3-point line. That percentage was actually higher than their overall FG%. Moreover, Bogut’s post play proved indefensible. His assortment of post shots and offensive put backs was too much.
The usual match-ups do not necessarily favor Boston either. Rajon Rondo is one of the toughest covers in the league because of his blazing speed. Most teams handle this by playing off Rondo. However, this gives him clear passing lanes and easy looks at his teammates. The Bucks have the luxury of their own speedster in Brandon Jennings. He plays Rondo very closely. Moreover, he stays with Rondo on those fast break opportunities that Rondo usually winds up running and finishing on his own. This helps reduce not only Rondo’s scoring, but his play making as well. His six assists total last night is four below his season average. The Celtics usually have a front court advantage as well. Kendricks Perkins is a strong and smart defender, who holds his ground and gets lots of blocks with his long arms. Garnett is also an intimidating and effective help defender in the low block. Unfortunately for the Celtics, Andrew Bogut has their number. In two games against the Celtics this year, Bogut has amassed 50 points, 31 rebounds (9 offensive), and six blocked shots. Bogut has lost weight this year, improved his strength, and taken up the mantle of team leader (playing big in big games are part of why Bogut as team leader is a good thing). Beyond these changes, Bogut’s ability to bully himself into rebounding position and to shoot hook shots with either hand at a high percentage make him a big problem for the Celtics interior defenders. He put his stamp on the game last night.
Boston went into the 4th quarter with a four point lead. As previously documented, the Celtics have had problems with let downs in the 4th quarter in close games. It happened again last night against the Bucks. By the seventh minute mark, the Celtics had put together an assortment of missed shots and turnovers, while the Bucks hit shots. Boston had scored just four points. Milwaukee doubled them for eight and pulled the game even. At the four minute mark, Salmons pulled up for a wide open three pointer to put the Bucks up by two. Both teams would only score five more point each for the remainder of the game. But the damage had been done. The Celtics would get it close, but were unable to take advantage of the Bucks they way they had with the Wizards just a few nights ago.
Since the two teams met in December, the Bucks have gone 25-18. The Celtics have gone 24-18. If the Bucks and Celtics meet in the playoffs, the sparks will most definitely fly. The Bucks did luck out in some regards last night. Paul Pierce had a terrible shooting night, not entirely due to the defensive intensity of Carlos Delfino. Garnett was a virtual non factor after the 1st quarter. These two will definitely turn up the intensity once the post season begins. But these Bucks know how to win tough games. And they know what they need to do to beat the Celtics. I’m not certain they have the experience required to take the Celtics in a seven game series, should the match up take place. Regardless, it would be a series well worth watching, a hard fought and possibly devastating one for the Celtics.