BOSTON — Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo both noticed the same thing about the new-look Celtics. They look to pass often, and play team basketball in an unexpected manner for a group playing together for such a sport span. The Bucks started the season in a similar position and looked far behind Boston in terms of acclimating new players in a wire-to-wire 119-116 loss.
“The skillset they all have,” Lillard told CLNS Media. “When you got five guys out there with the ability to shoot the way they do, that’s dangerous. I think they play for each other. You can tell they’ve bought into making the extra pass. They’re driving to the paint and when everybody sinks in, they kick it out and then they play off the catch and drive again, and they make you react. They’re constantly finding the next guy, because they know that’s a winning brand of basketball, but they also know that guy can make it, that guy can make it and that guy can make it. The more they make those plays, the more you can spaced out you’ll have a defense.”
Jaylen Brown led that passing effort on the second most efficient passing night of his career, dishing eight assists and turning the ball over once on a travel call. His effort helped Jayson Tatum, who played through an illness. Brown scored eight of the Celtics’ 10 points while Boston shutout the Bucks for the opening 2.5 minutes. Milwaukee struggled to find advantages in its new pick-and-roll combination, and Lillard spent nearly the entire first quarter before scoring his first points. Brown scored 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting compared to Lillard’s 27 on 24 shots with five assists and three giveaways.
Milwaukee missed shots around the rim that could’ve narrowed the margin, trailing by as many as 21 points while the Celtics vaulted ahead on 12-for-23 (52%) three-point shooting. Brown hit two straight after exploding past Antetokounmpo for a baseline dunk to open the game following a pass from longtime Buck Jrue Holiday. Holiday struggled (1-8, 3 pts) in his first meeting with his former team. The Bucks didn’t leave the game missing him, wishing him well and greeting him in the locker room leading up to the game, and more so leaving impressed by the connectivity he and the Celtics already formed.
“Weird feeling to play against (Holiday), very tough that he’s not with the team no more, but life moves on,” Antetokounmpo said. “At the end of the day, we have great players on our team now that can step up and not only fill that void, and carry that torch and do better.”
The Bucks made that bet knowing Holiday could inadvertently land on an east rival. Holiday’s arrival allowed him to guard Antetokounmpo while keeping Kristaps Porziņģis away from his actions. Brook Lopez managed to exploit Porziņģis, helping force five fouls on Boston’s big man while pressuring the rim for 28 points and five offensive rebounds. The foundation for how the Bucks might challenge the Celtics later showed in spurts, but the clunkiness of the Lillard-Antetokounmpo tandem early under rookie head coach Adrian Griffin recalls how James Harden and Joel Embiid played for Philadelphia. Individually talented but not always connected.
Entering Wednesday, Lillard and Antetokounmpo combined for 2.6 assists per game to each other on 29.6 passes per game. That’s only slightly more than Brown and Tatum’s long-criticized totals (14.1, 0.9 APG) without the same positional overlap excuse for it. Lillard’s running 10.4 pick-and-rolls per game, while Antetokounmpo rolls 8.1 times each night, producing only 1.14 points per possession, compared to 1.16 in 3.8 on-ball sets per night. Between Lillard’s long pull-ups and Antetokounmpo’s dominant finishing, Milwaukee could’ve pulled Porziņģis out of the paint and forced Boston to take him off the floor. That happened late due to foul trouble. Far too late.
“At halftime, we came in the locker room and said we gotta step to them,” Lillard said. “Everything they did was a little too comfortable on both ends of the floor. We weren’t disrupting them enough defensively and we weren’t making them get into rotations and making them work hard enough offensively. You see what happened once we started doing that. We gave ourselves a chance … you’ve gotta be able to sustain that effort and that focus.”
Tatum and Derrick White drove-and-kicked to White and Al Horford for additional threes before White hit a pull-up one in transition to shoot ahead 21-8. Porziņģis drew a foul with Lillard switched onto him. Tatum attacked the Malik Beasley mismatch and Lillard finally found Giannis for an alley-oop after all that. MarJon Beauchamp and Cam Payne missed shots into the second unit as Milwaukee fell behind by 18, then Brown and Porziņģis broke into their flourishing two-man game that drove Brown’s bounce-back night.
Brown found Porziņģis for four assists between the second and third quarters, Porziņģis returning the favor by feeding Brown into his back cut for a windmill dunk. His adjustment to an offense that requires more patience and sacrifice on certain nights eased with the arrival of a 7-3 big man he can typically just throw the ball to and expect a score from. That hasn’t happened in straightforward manner despite a 12-3 start. The same goes for a Bucks team that seemed poised for unstoppable offensive heights. They closed strong, while Brown resorted to the difficult looks late that undermined some of his worst nights earlier in the season.
Milwaukee pulled within seven late, doubling Tatum, who split a double-team to dunk, found Brown, who hit Holiday from the paint for an open miss, before Tatum sealed the game at the free throw line. White, guarding Lillard ahead by four, appeared to barely tip his dunk attempt as it fell short of the rim to halt the comeback.
“Neither one of us was going to win a championship tonight,” Lillard said.
Instead, Brown and Porziņģis finished the night as the top pick-and-roll combination on the court, Porziņģis going behind the back at one point in transition and claiming the best is yet to come for their tandem — too.
“It’s just (Brown) making the game easy for me. I’m just making reads off of him,” Porziņģis said. “If he comes off and he wants the handoff, boom, I hand it to him, I start rolling, he plays that game … either finish or throw the lob … he’s not afraid to throw the lob and he draws a lot of attention, and that opens up things for me. It’s pretty natural for us to have that two-man game and the more time we play together, the better our chemistry will be. We sit next to each other on the plane, so we talk all the time … we just click and that translates on the court. I think it’s only gonna get better.”
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