As if he was a teen drunk on love after the Celtics Game 1 win in Milwaukee, Paul Pierce recklessly proclaimed, “I think the [Celtics and Bucks] series is over,” proclaiming a premature Celtics advance. The Truth’s hasty hot take was not well received, as he was immediately bombarded with objections by his fellow hosts Chauncey Billups, Jalen Rose, and Michelle Beadle. However, it was another of Pierce’s teammates at ESPN, and a long time Celtics’ insider, who objected to Pierce’s opinion that drives the lack of rationality in Pierce’s proclamation home.
"I think it's over."
– Paul Pierce following the Bucks’ 22-point loss to the Celtics in Game 1 pic.twitter.com/XzsRzjQnW6
— ESPN (@espn) April 28, 2019
ESPN.com’s Jackie MacMullan caught up with Bill Simmons on the B.S. Pod last week and broke down the Pierce calamity in a way Boston fans can understand, and perhaps add a healthy amount of “Fear the Deer” in our basketball diet, if Giannis hasn’t already.
MacMullan recalled how she had ran into Pierce in the studio shortly after his premature “Series is over” comment and succinctly scolded him like a motherly figure. “I said to [Pierce], ‘Paul Pierce, if I had ever said to you, when you were trailing a series one to nothing, that the series was over you’d be so far up my grill!’ and [Pierce] was laughing, ‘cause he knows I’m right.”
Pierce’s prediction couldn’t have been any further from the truth. So much as declaring that the series was over on national TV likely galvanized the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo, especially after suffering an embarrassing defeat on their home court.
Since that night, the Bucks have performed with a renewed sense of purpose and I’m not so sure that it wasn’t just to shut up The Truth.
In Games 2 and 3, the Bucks and their relentless MVP front runner, Antetokounmpo have been shooting at a vengeful clip of 48% from the field and 42% from beyond the three point line. In just two victories, the Bucks shooting efficiency combined with 35 three pointers poured in means they are operating at a level Houston GM, Daryl Morey would consider championship grade fuel for the Rockets’ offense. Milwaukee’s three point success, supplemented with 67 free throws attempted in the two games, creates an unstoppable force on the offensive end for the Bucks, which has resulted in them notching 123 points in both their game two victory and game three victory. Keep in mind, this offensive barrage is coming against Boston’s third ranked playoff defense.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s defensive rating remains one step ahead of Boston in both Playoff metrics, and on a majority of Celtic possessions in the last 96 minutes of play. Akin to how the Celtics suffocated the Greek Freak’s rim attacking in game one, the Milwaukee defense has taken away Kyrie’s air space in the pick and roll and in the paint in the last two games. Yes, it’s not an overly complex counter from Milwaukee head coach, Mike Budenholzer, but it forces the Celtics to rely heavily on their supporting cast (which has not gone too well). Similar to the Bucks secondary players failing to rise to the occasion when their best player crumbled to the Greek Feta instead of Greek Freak in Game 1, the Celtics have struggled mightily when Kyrie has been reduced from his on court status as “Genius.”
Although, part of me believes it’s not Milwaukee’s emphasis on defending Kyrie, but the Celtic’s themselves who are to blame for the poor performances in the previous two outings.
In Game 1, we saw the Celtics brimming with confidence and executing their game plan to perfection. Brad Stevens’ strategy constricted the Greek Freak and the Celtics looked better than they had all season on both sides of the court; every pass was meaningful, every shot was taken with confidence, and the team defensive integrity never faltered during Giannis’ penetration. In contrast over the last two games, Boston has not had the same intensity on both ends of the floor. We’ve seen this all year from the Celtic’s; one day they dominate the Warriors and the next, they’re losing to a lottery bound Lakers squad. The Celtic’s perseverance on any given day is volatile, and there’s no room for inconsistency in the Playoffs. Every single weakness is put under a microscope in the postseason.
That’s why Pierce’s words were so dangerous; Pierce thought the Celtics had exposed all of the Buck’s weaknesses to a tee. But he forgot that the pendulum swings both ways and the Bucks could compromise the Celtics just as easily, and they have.
Out of the gate in Game 4, the Bucks are going to be like frenzied sharks with blood in the water. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Malcolm Brogdon return after missing twenty games due to plantar fascia in effort to secure the 3-1 series advantage. Khris Middleton, Nikola Mirotic, Eric Bledsoe, and Brook Lopez are going to have to continue to shoot well and from extended range, as that has really stretched the Boston defense thin.
Nice tweak by the Bucks here. They really struggled with small/small pick and rolls in Game 1. Here Tatum screens for Kyrie and instead of a drop they switch. Good individual defense by Middleton vs. Kyrie, something to watch going forward. pic.twitter.com/TIIsebLjrW
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 1, 2019
On the defensive end, Middleton and Bledsoe will keep channeling their inner Patrick Beverly and be a pest defending Irving. Just as Horford can defend the rim surprisingly well, don’t forget that Lopez is no slouch and averaged two blocks a game for a season, once upon a time.
At the crux of everything the Bucks do though, remains the Greek Freak. His incredible length and versatility is the key to Milwaukee’s defense. Antetokounmpo almost always is the defensive catalyst who starts fast breaks for the Bucks, whether it be tipping a pass he should have no business reaching, or emphatically rejecting layups and dunks that in one instant appeared to be an easy bucket, suddenly turned into a fast break dunk for the Bucks.
If I were a psychic I’d probably tell you I don’t foresee any stopping of the Greek Freak in Game 4. Even if the Celtics light the trenches like they’re defending Winterfell against the army of the dead, Giannis is still the freakin’ Night King and he will not be denied like he was in game one of this series. Much like the Night King, Giannis is getting through the gates of his enemies regardless of defenses. After building back his confidence the past two games, Giannis is likely the one to be the one burning the Celtics defense. Although the Night King is a fine comparison for Giannis, a more suiting comparison is actually Kobe Bryant.
If I were to compare any guy in the league right now to the Black Mamba I would choose the Greek Freak. It is fitting that Bryant was the most notorious Celtic nemesis last time the Celtics were championship contenders and Antetokounmpo has now taken the torch. I am not comparing the two basketball players because Giannis can shoot the lights out and hit hesi pull-up jimbos with defenders draped all over him, because he can’t, but Giannis’ competitive mentality pays homage to Bryant’s ultra competitive streak. Make no mistake, the fun loving Greek guy you see during the regular season is no half-hearted competitor; he has that Mamba mentality, as Kobe would say, and Giannis can tap into the darker forces of his “Musecage.” One of Giannis’ lesser known nicknames is “Dark Giannis,” after all. While Giannis taps into the dark side of the force, expect Kyrie Irving to do the same; both guys are some of the most competitive players in the league right now and look up to Bryant (it’s a shame Jayson Tatum isn’t on a superstar level yet).
On the other hand, the Celtics understand their fate is determined by game four. After Monday night, they will either be down 3-1 in the series in which case they’re are going to be having early off-season vacations in the Caribbean this year, or win game four and tie the series up.
Besides Irving, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward are going to have a substantial positive impact on Game 4. Horford and Hayward are both stars who can shine with the equal intensity as Hayward, knowing they’ve had the experience of bearing the heavy playoff expectations on their shoulders before. Last year’s young Celtics studs never felt that weight of great expectations, as they were constantly underdogs and never even felt the pressure of making it to the conference finals.
If the Celtics want to win this game and the series going forward, Boston’s supporting cast has to take what they learned from the Playoffs last year and apply it now. Terry Rozier has to terrorize Eric “Drew” Bledsoe, Tatum has to play with the fire which he channeled to posterize LeBron James in game seven, and Jaylen Brown has to continue to be aggressive and fearless as he’s been the past two months. Everybody I just mentioned are more talented than Milwaukee’s rotation guys and they need to turn that talent into tangible skills (as we saw last postseason) if the Celtics want to win this round.
The last overlooked Celtic’s contributor who will need to step up is Aron Baynes. In Game 3, Brad Stevens frustrated fans by limiting the hefty New Zealander’s floor time to only two minutes. Baynes is one of the few Celtics defenders who has the strength in the paint to handle the Greek Freak’s rim attacking prowess and his absence was noticed. Giannis scored 32 on 60% shooting and had plenty of daylight whenever he drove to the basket. The Bucks and Budenholzer forced Stevens to bench Baynes because on offense the Bucks were exposing Baynes’ perimeter defense by switching him off of Giannis and exposing him on an island out in the perimeter of the Celtic defense. Switching Baynes to the perimeter on any number of Milwaukee’s guards and deep threat three point shooting big men (Brook Lopez, Nikola Mirotic, Ersan Ilyasova) stretched the Celtic defense far too thin. Budenholzer’s counter created a major dilemma for Stevens; defend the paint against Giannis by keeping Baynes in the game or allow the Bucks to get open shots from three by taking him out.
In Game 3, Stevens chose to stop the threes and it didn’t work. Expect Stevens to retry the Baynes experiment in game four and play it by ear (depending on Milwaukee’s shooting success). Baynes is not as heavy on his feet as one would think and he is a vital key for the Celtics to keep Antetokounmpo under control. It is a gamble that will have to be taken as all hands will need to be on deck for this series defining G4.
If the Celtics win Game 4, I would have no problem this time around if Pierce was on the postgame show gloating how the series is over. As long as the Celtics can continually make adjustments, this series is over in seven games.