The old cliché is that a playoff series doesn’t start until somebody loses at home. Well in the No. 1 Bucks versus No. 4 Celtics Eastern Conference semifinals, the series started in a hurry.
Boston took down the Bucks in Game 1 of the series 112-90 Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee, and a lot of credit goes to the veteran center Al Horford for being the perfect foil to Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Celtics played this game very similarly to the way that they played the Bucks in the first round of last postseason. Head coach Brad Stevens used Horford as the primary defender on Antetokounmpo, and Big Al ate him alive.
Horford is often labeled as the guy that does the things that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. Well, his impact in this one was so big, that he locked up The Greek Freak and filled in the box score.
Horford held Antetokounmpo to 7-21 from the field for a total of 22 points. Antetokounmpo also had eight rebounds, two assists and two turnovers. He finished with the worst plus/minus of the game with -24. Thanks to a few uncharacteristic pull-up 3-pointers, Antetokounmpo was able to salvage what was otherwise a very dismal performance.
Horford, on the other hand, lit it up on offense. He scored 20 points on 50 percent shooting with 11 rebounds and three blocks. Like Antetokounmpo, he also shot 3-5 from deep. Horford’s ability to shoot from beyond the arc neutralized Antetokounmpo’s ability to play his “free safety” position on defense. Normally Antetokounmpo guards a non-shooter so he can roam the floor as a freakishly long help defender, but the Celtics’ ability to put five shooters on the court ruins this defensive strategy.
In the Celtics versus Bucks series last postseason, Horford led Boston in scoring (18.1), rebounding (8.7), blocked shots (1.4) and was third in assists (3.3). He also shot 58.8 percent from the field and went 7-16 from deep. Stevens saw what worked last time and thought to try that again.
Two of Horford’s blocks were against Antetokounmpo in the paint, an area where he has had his way with defenders all season. Horford didn’t shut down the MVP-favorite on his own, though. The help defense from the long and athletic wing players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown was excellent, and Marcus Morris did a great job of keeping Antetokounmpo contained as well.
The Celtics also did a great job rotating on the perimeter to prevent Antetokounmpo from finding open shooters when he got into the lane. He only had two assists on just as many turnovers.
It was almost like the Bucks’ head coach Mike Budenholzer didn’t prepare for Boston to do everything they could to take Antetokounmpo away. Last year’s head coach, Joe Prunty, was unable to find a solution, but Budenholzer is a much better coach, so I assume he will make adjustments for the rest of this series.
Budenholzer will have to find a way to get the rest of his players going if they want a chance in this series. Eric Bledsoe spent this game putting up ill-advised shots on his way to a six-point, 1-5 effort. Brook “Splash Mountain” Lopez also shot 1-5, making just one 3-point shot. Sterling Brown and Pat Connaughton, who have seen increased minutes with Malcolm Brogdon injured, combined for eight points on 3-17 shooting from the field.
The only helpful contributions that the Bucks got were from the ever-reliable Khris Middleton and their prized midseason acquisition Nikola Mirotic. Middleton recorded 16 points on 12 shots, also adding 10 rebounds and six assists. Mirotic scored 13 points and shot 5-9. Both players went 3-4 from 3-point territory.
Middleton will be the key to unlock the Bucks’ offense in this series. Last year, Milwaukee was only able to take Boston to seven games because of Middleton. He averaged 24.7 points, shooting 59.8 percent from the field and a remarkable 61.0 percent from deep on 41 attempts. He is clearly this offense’s second option and will have to step up if he wants his squad to come back from losing home court advantage.
The Bucks will have to learn how to play when Antetokounmpo can’t just physically overpower his matchup. Even if he can get past Horford and the Celtics, elite defenders that could matchup with The Freak like the Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol or the 76ers’ Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid await next round. If Milwaukee wants to be a serious contender, Giannis will need some help.
Sean Janos is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.