February 9, 2023

If you are looking to completely discredit single-game plus-minus numbers, look no further than Brook Lopez’s minus-10 line in the Milwaukee Bucks’ Game 1 victory over the Boston Celtics on Sunday. Lopez was a superhero. He was the center of a huge Bucks defense, figuratively and literally, that protected the paint like club bouncers. 

Lopez finished with three blocks and 10 rebounds. 

Those numbers are misleading as well. 

Lopez affected a lot more shots than the three he blocked. Along with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bobby Portis (who composed the Bucks’ skyscraper-ish starting frontline), Lopez prioritized paint protection in typical drop fashion, for which he has tremendous feel, knowing precisely when to stop giving ground, plant his flag and contest with his 7-foot-6 wingspan. Giannis was equally menacing as not just a rim protector, but an overall shot contester. It felt as if the Celtics were trying to shoot through a field of windmills. 

Under Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks have long been willing to concede 3-pointers if it means controlling the paint. The philosophy has come under scrutiny in the past, but not all 3-point attempts are created equal. Sure, if your big is deep dropping on pick and rolls against a great pull-up shooter, and you’re giving up walk-in 3 after walk-in 3, that’s not going to work. But that surely wasn’t happening on Sunday. 

Late in the first quarter, the Bucks ramped up their perimeter ball pressure, and that’s where it starts. Lopez isn’t having to ward off penetrators who haven’t had to work to get through the first line of security. This isn’t a Rudy Gobert situation in Utah. Milwaukee’s perimeter guys do their job. Jrue Holiday, Javon Carter and Pat Connaughton sucked out all the air between them and Boston’s ball-handlers. They fought over screens and the wings were on high alert to sink down into driving lanes. If need be, Giannis and Portis would flat out leave their shooter — Al Horford a few times — to join the interior swarm. 

After all that, then you run into Lopez. The result: Milwaukee only gave up 20 points in the paint for the entire game. In the second quarter, the Celtics only got off six shots from inside the arc. 

Even when the Celtics did reach the paint, they were not doing so on their terms. At best they had maybe a half step on the defender trailing hard over the screen with a rotating big in front of them; at worst they were out of control, off balance and barely holding on to the ball. Boston wants clean drive and kicks, but Milwaukee was stoning them to such a degree that the kick-out passes were more like bailout passes. 

Jump stop. Pump fake. Pivot. Damn, I’m still surrounded by trees? Oh well, I guess I’ll pass out. 

By then the Bucks had time to rotate back to shooters and contest. The Celtics were forced to take 50 3-pointers, and you could count on one hand the number of those that were clean, in rhythm and from a shooter that actually concerns Milwaukee. Derrick White, Marcus Smart, or even Horford, Grant Williams or Payton Pritchard are likely not going to make enough 3-pointers to beat Milwaukee over a seven-game series. 

Boston needs Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to do that work. Milwaukee knows that. Tatum drew the superstar attention, as he should, facing occasional doubles but more often simply seeing two or three help defenders within a step of his driving lanes while dealing with relentless ball pressure. He finished with 21 points but only shot 6 of 18 from the field. 

We did see the impact of Tatum’s gravity with some open looks for Horford and Grant Williams, and those are shots Boston is going to have to knock down as the series moves forward. 

Brown, on the other hand, was terrible. There’s no other way to say it. He was hesitant. Sloppy. He over-penetrated when there was nowhere to go. He finished with 12 points on 4-of-13 shooting, including 3 of 9 from 3, with seven turnovers. 

Moving forward, this is a Brown series for Boston. He’s not going to see the same kind of attention that Tatum does, and if he can more effectively beat his defender and get into the paint with leverage and actual control of the ball, that can lead to kick passes to Tatum, who can then attack against a rotating defense rather than a set one. 

Boston has its own swarming defense, and we saw plenty of it in Game 1. The turnovers hurt and allowed Milwaukee to get out in transition, which gave them too many open 3s, but Antetokounmpo was controlled about as well as he can be as a downhill attacker; Horford, in particular, was terrific defensively. 

So Boston has reasons for optimism. Tatum and Brown can shoot, and play, much better. Clean up the unforced errors. This is likely going to be a long fight. But there’s no doubt Lopez and the Milwaukee defense scored a round-one knockdown. 

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