BOSTON — Ime Udoka and the Celtics left Game 1 with a sense of optimism. Confident in how they defended Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Excited about how much offensive opportunity they left on the table. Whether missed reads to Al Horford and Robert Williams III, dump-offs in the lane or outlets to shooters when dribbling in traffic, Udoka foresaw what the Celtics would accomplish in Game 2 through what they didn’t in Game 1.
Boston — a team that resembled Udoka’s Spurs squads at times offensively in the second half of the season — strung together a sequence late in the second quarter where Jaylen Brown up-faked and dumped a pass to Derrick White, starting for the injured Marcus Smart, in the post. White fired to Tatum in the corner, who found Brown to his left, who dumped a pass to Horford, who laid the pass in one motion off the backboard and in.
It resembled the now-iconic play that beat Brooklyn in the final seconds of Game 1 in the last series, and embodied a team that’s embraced Udoka’s selfless brand of basketball. Passing up good shots for great. With each extra dish, you couldn’t believe the Celtics didn’t put a shot up, but Bucks kept flying into the back court with aggressive contests until none remained at the rim.
“It just started with them kind of pressuring us. Last game, it bothered us a lot more. At times, it kind of bothered us in this game too, but I think we handled the pressure a lot better than we did the first game,” Brown told CLNS Media after. “So when that pressure comes, just being poised, being strong, once you get to the paint, get it moving, keep them running. Keep them running around, and we found a wide-open basket. Sometimes passing up the open shot to get a great shot is what we like to do. So we’ve been honing in on that, emphasizing that and that was one of the possessions where it shined through. We got a bunch of good shooters, so they’re going to be closing out extremely hard like they should when we’re open. You shoot it with confidence or drive it again and find another open guy, and we did that a lot. Especially in the first half. A little bit less in the second half, but we found some great possessions of Celtics basketball.”
The Celtics’ explosion of offensive activity led them to a runaway 109-86 win over the Bucks in Game 2 that evened the series 1-1 heading back to Milwaukee. Brown scored 30 points, 17 coming in the first and 25 in the first half on 9-for-10 shooting. Boston assisted on 28 of its 38 baskets, an elite 73.7 AST% that would’ve ranked first among teams in the regular season, up from the Celtics’ 60.9% in the regular season and continued a 75% effort from Game 1.
Two days of film worked opened the team’s eyes to how many opportunities they squandered, Brown and Horford took early available mid-rangers, while the Celtics forced the issue to touch the paint. Brown had said entering the series that just because the Bucks take the paint away doesn’t mean Boston can ignore it. He put his head down, fired a pass to Tatum, reestablished himself in the corner while White drove again, and ultimately caught a pass from Horford just to his right to receive a wide open three.
The Celtics led 7-0, Horford and Williams III pinching the lane and forcing Giannis jump shots on his way to an 0-for-3 start with a turnover. Then, Grant Williams, who scored 21 points on 6-for-9 three point shooting, checked in to guard the MVP candidate. Giannis went to work, backing him down, bumping him to the restricted zone, turning and losing control of the ball with Williams underneath him. The ball flew high in the air as Williams ripped it down, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
Tatum drilled a three two plays later, found Williams abandoned on the left wing for another on the next trip down, and the Celtics had a double-digit lead they wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the night.
“Just what we saw we could’ve done better in Game 1,” Udoka told CLNS. “Shooting 50 threes is one thing, but a lot of them were contested. So we knew we had opportunities to drive closeouts, and touch the paint a few times. We knew if we did that, their defense would dissipate and we’d get the looks we wanted. So that was the point of emphasis going into it, and I loved our aggressiveness at touching the paint, attacking, kicking out and trying to get the right shots. That was evident in the first half.”
Brown closed the first quarter taking over, blocking Jrue Holiday in isolation and taking the ball back to the other end for a pull-up three. He shook Grayson Allen with a crossover to the floor and buried a two-point over him. Then, he stepped away from Giannis for another mid-range make. After a three-point jumper over Allen to reach his playoff-high 17 in a quarter, he finished the quarter driving the length of the floor to drop off a pass to Tatum in the lane.
That passing flowed into the second quarter, where White evaded full court pressure from Allen by tossing a pass to Tatum, resetting in the right corner while Tatum bounced around a screen, catching an extra pass, driving, kicking to Grant, who up-faked while Horford popped to his left, swinging there to get Horford an open three. White, who struggled to score in his spot start, strung together four straight assists to begin the second.
Brown stole the in-bounds pass from Holiday after and fed Tatum for a pair of free throws inside. Holiday hit a tough step-back to keep the Bucks within 18, then Brown set up and drove to initiate one of the defining passing sequences of the season. Grant watched from the left side and six passes spun around the right side, Brown only gazing at him for pass-fakes.
“It was actually hilarious because I think in that one possession, JB ball faked to me twice in the corner. Ball faked me, took a dribble, ball faked me again, threw it to JT and JT threw it to Al and laid it up,” Williams told CLNS. “I was like, ‘huh, I’m kinda open.’ But I was like, ‘You know what, we got a layup, so I’m gonna get back on defense.’ So it was kind of cool. That possession, it was so exciting being on the floor with that because each and every one of us was out there trusting one another, having fun and that’s how you know it’s a team where you’ve got success.”
Williams continued the passing party on the next possession, hitting Brown on the right wing with a skip pass, who tossed it to Payton Pritchard to his right for a corner three. Pritchard fed Williams back in the left corner for a three on the next trip down, before Brown hit another pull-up two and caught a pass from Williams, who had just up-faked Antetokounmpo in the left corner out of the play, hitting Brown above the break for three. The Celtics’ lead had ballooned to 25 at half.
Milwaukee relented on its hard closeouts into the second half, which hit a stagnant pace through three reviews for flagrant fouls and coaches challenges on both ends. Antetokounmpo stormed out of halftime hitting 4-of-5 attempts, posting 23 points and three assists in the third quarter.
“It felt like we had really good shots we were missing,” Udoka told CLNS. “Some of our passes weren’t as crisp … balls got tipped or were a little off target. So it took us off our spots a little bit. Liked the looks we were getting, just happened to miss some. Think there was a little bit of a lull in the game at times, don’t know if it was all the replays and the reviews and all that. Credit them, they upped their intensity a little bit. They made an adjustment in the second half, not closing out as hard and we adjusted that and kind of got it back in the fourth quarter.”
Brown went scoreless, adding five before the end of the fourth quarter and grabbing at his hamstring late in the game, but once again shaking it off as an excuse after. Smart, who watched from the sideline yelling out instructions to teammates, hopes to play Saturday with three days off after missing Game 2 with a quad contusion.
The Bucks pulled within 12 points midway through the final frame. The Celtics basically needed one more basket to ice it. So Tatum drove downhill, tossed a pass behind his head to Brown, who approached Antetokounmpo, who abandoned Tatum as he flew into the cameras on the baseline. Brown waited, Tatum got up and reestablished himself in the right corner wide open and Brown kicked for his sixth and final assist of the night.
“Good to great, something that we’ve just emphasized for a while,” Tatum told CLNS after. “You pass up a good shot to get a great shot. They’re a really good team, so the first action may not work, even the second one. You just gotta keep moving the ball, keep driving it until you get the best shot possible. That’s what we did.”