Celtics

The Celtics need much more from their stars: 6 takeaways from Game 1 vs. Bucks

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown struggled mightily in Game 1.

Celtics Bucks
Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks as Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart and center Al Horford look on. AP Photo/Steven Senne

It’s always best to avoid overreacting to the first game of a series, so let’s try to keep things in perspective: The Celtics aren’t going to win a series against the Bucks if Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown shoot a combined 10-for-31 from the floor every night, like they did in Sunday’s 101-89 loss.

The only problem: The Bucks had a lot to do with their struggles in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Both Tatum and Brown were harassed and harangued by aggressive Bucks defenders who seemingly lay in wait for the postseason all year — buoyed by the confidence of winning a title last season. The Bucks looked like a completely different team on Sunday than the one the Celtics faced during the regular season.

Still, we should reiterate that not all is lost just because the Celtics dropped their first loss of the postseason. The prescription is simple, even if acquiring the medicine isn’t: The Celtics need more from Tatum, who is the starting point for all of their best offense. They also need more from Brown, who relieves a lot of the pressure opposing teams put on Tatum. Until those two things happen, they will continue to struggle.

Advertisement:

“We’ve got to be ready for their physicality and they hit us in the mouth early and set the tone,” Brown said. “We responded better in the second half when we gave up 45 points, but we’ve got to play better at the end of the day and that’s what it’s going to come down to.”

The bet the Bucks made in Game 1 was that if they bothered the Celtics’ stars with aggressive, physical defense, the entire Jenga tower would topple. It worked. If it continues to work, this might be a short series.

A fairly safe assumption, of course, is that the Celtics will make adjustments and free up their stars. They need to figure it out quickly, though — the Bucks also gambled that they wouldn’t need home-court advantage against the Celtics on the final day of the regular season, and they stole the advantage from the Celtics right away in Game 1.

Suddenly, Game 2 looms large.

“Be ready to come back, play better, play tougher, come in and get a win,” Tatum said. “That’s how I think we’re going to respond.”

More takeaways

2. Maybe the biggest issue for the Celtics offensively was their inability to generate anything in the paint, which had a lot to do with the Bucks’ defense. Milwaukee harassed Boston into turnovers, forced them to fruitlessly challenge Brook Lopez, and never let them get into their best offense. They bothered the Celtics with full-court defense, and Ime Udoka admitted after the game that the ball-handlers were “sped up.”

Advertisement:

“Got to give them credit,” Al Horford said. “They really came out and set the tone. It was one of those games that they let us play, which was great. And yeah, I definitely think we took a step back to that, just from the things that they were doing. I felt like we responded at times, but that had an impact on the game for sure.”

In fact, what the Bucks did to the Celtics was somewhat historic — the Celtics narrowly missed becoming just the fourth team in the shot-clock era to convert fewer than 10 two-pointers in a game.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, did things like this.

The Celtics have a lot to figure out before Game 2.

3. Marcus Smart went running off the court in the first half after experiencing a shoulder stinger, and the Celtics added a quad injury to his list of ailments before he returned for the second half. Smart could be seen limping toward the locker room just before the final buzzer as well. Ime Udoka told reporters after the game that he expects Smart will be fine, but the Defensive Player of the Year didn’t look comfortable.

“He took a few hits,” Udoka said. “Took two in the first half. I think the quad bothered him more than the shoulder. He’s going to play through a lot. It could’ve affected him offensively, getting downhill, driving a little bit. But defensively as well, he likes to climb up a little bit and be more physical. It probably affected him some. He’s getting iced down now and assume he’ll be okay.”

Advertisement:

Smart wasn’t alone. Robert Williams took a hard kick to the groin from Antetokounmpo in the first half, but he too returned to the game and appeared to be okay.

Brown, meanwhile, was asked about his balky hamstring.

“I feel good,” he said. “On to the next. Got to get some treatment, some recovery and be ready for the next one.”

4. The Celtics also need to do a much better job of covering the Bucks’ shooters. During the regular season, lineups with Antetokounmpo on the floor and Khris Middleton — who is sidelined for the series — on the bench were actually better than when the duo shared the court. Without Middleton, the Bucks simply surround Antetokounmpo with shooters and Brook Lopez, which simplifies the game significantly.

Going forward, the Celtics might have to simply trust Al Horford and Grant Williams to do a good enough job on Antetokounmpo to keep the defenders home on the Bucks shooters.

5. The Celtics turned the ball over 18 times, including seven by Brown. Derrick White struggled in the first half against the Bucks’ pressure as well, as he and Marcus Smart combined for five more of the Celtics’ turnovers. Tatum coughed it up three times.

6. After the game, Udoka noted that it would be difficult for the Celtics to play worse.

“I felt it’s in a way good to get this dud out of the way offensively,” Udoka said. “And so to lose a 12-point game when we played that poorly offensively, I think, bodes well for us. We’ll figure out what we like as far as that, and then I think our poor offense fueled their offense. So a lot of ways to clean up and get better.”

Advertisement:

Game 2 tips off at 7 p.m. on Tuesday in Boston. 

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com