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A Mostly Encouraging Celtics Performance Against the Bucks

Jayson Tatum sucked. That was unfortunate. Kemba played limited minutes. That was expected. Giannis was able to finish the game with more than six personal fouls. That was bull****. But despite all these happenings, the Celtics still competed with the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night in their first real game since March 10.

It pains me to start this article in this way, but I have no choice other than to lead with how terrible Jayson Tatum was on the basketball floor on Friday. It seems like “2-18,” the FG-FGA mark that Tatum had against the Bucks, is going to be a signature number in Boston sports fans’ memory. We know “28-3,” we know “18 and 1,” and now we know “2-18,” although it should be remembered as 1-17 because the Celtics’ first made shot was attributed to Tatum when two Bucks accidentally tipped the ball in their own basket while going for the rebound.

Tatum pretty much began where he left off in the scrimmages, only this time, he missed more shots because he played a normal amount of minutes given that Friday’s game meant something to the win-loss records of the teams competing. He continued to be out of rhythm offensively but to perhaps a worse extent than in the scrimmages. He looked like a ghost of himself, just going through the motions. For starters, Tatum vs. making left wing threes have been a one sided rivalry down in Orlando; I’m pretty sure he’s like 1-12 from that spot so far. On nearly all of his drives he seemed hesitant and off-balance, leading to an awkward release and a miss. At one point in the game he simply missed a point blank layup from a standstill position.

BOSTON, MA – OCTOBER 25: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics during pregame ceremonies prior to the start of the game against the Toronto Raptors at TD Garden on October 25, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

If you’ve ever played basketball, you’d understand how your offense impacts how you play defense. If you are making your shots and/or making good passes to your teammates, you have that pep in your step that makes you want to play great defense. However, Jayson wasn’t making anything, and so, consequently, his defense wasn’t as good as it should be. On one play he allowed Sterling Brown to get the rim for an and-one, just a lack of focus; and in crunch time he gambled and tried to steal the ball from Giannis which led to that controversial and-one on Smart. (More on Giannis and the officials later.) I believe that if Tatum had made at least a few shots, the act of seeing the ball go through the hoop for him would’ve given him enough of a confidence boost to get him to laser in on defense and at least play normal, measured defense at such a critical point in the game. Instead, he overcompensated for his lack of offense and tried to do too much, prove to his teammates that he could still be of use, and made the costly mistake.

I don’t know what exactly to blame his noticeable struggles on: The fact that he didn’t find a hoop during quarantine until late April, that he’s been playing perhaps too much golf, is away from his son Deuce, or some other reason. It also looks like he got leaner with his frame/shoulders becoming less broad since March, although that could just be me getting tripped out by the camera angle on these Disney courts. Whatever the case may be, Twitter teed off on Tatum:

As a huge Tatum fan, it sucks that he’s been so bad in Orlando and that everyone has had the justified right to slander him. Some of my friends are already claiming that Jaylen Brown, who, don’t get me wrong, I like a lot, is our best player. Some are saying that he’s not a top 15 player in the league. Although I disagree with both of those statements, at least at this point in time, Tatum has to turn his slump around soon or else more haters will creep out of the woods. I don’t know whether his truly fantastic trainer, Drew Hanlen, needs to get seriously involved here, but what I do know is that if he doesn’t return to even 90% of what he was in those 5-6 weeks before the shutdown, the Celtics upside is capped at a pre-conference finals exit. That February-March Tatum is the Tatum that gives the Celtics a legit threat to push the Bucks to a long series in the Eastern Conference Finals, but that Tatum was absolutely dead on Friday.

Aside from the Tatum thing, it felt like a classic Celtics game against the Bucks. Boston looked eager and focused from the tipoff and through the first couple of defensive possessions. The starters looked like they had this shared responsibility to stop Giannis and they were all buying into that. However, as is almost inevitable, Giannis got going and things snowballed. Before you could blink the C’s were down 17-2 with the Bucks looking unstoppable on both ends of the court. However, Boston rallied back, and, by the end of the first quarter, we already had that classic hungry and determined look from Jaylen Brown that signalled that it was a ballgame again. Boston continued to fight and took a brief lead on Milwaukee in the 3rd quarter, again, something that seems to happen every time between these two teams, only to eventually let the back-and-forth battle slip out of hand in the final minutes of the 4th.

Obviously a big storyline down the stretch was the officiating, specifically, two plays that each saved Giannis from fouling out. The first blasphemous officiating crime came with the Celtics on offense in what I believe was a tie game with under two minutes to play. In the play, that is shown below, Giannis punches Daniel Theis in the groin area, an act that would probably get him arrested if he did such a thing in a normal societal setting. In any case, you be the judge here. Should this have been called a foul on Giannis?

The answer, undoubtedly, is yes. But even after review, the play was simply deemed “Celtics ball.” Tough.

Then, of course, moments after that Tatum gamble on Giannis, Smart stepped up, and, with his feet just outside of the restricted arc, planted himself right before Giannis ran into him for what was called a charge. Boom! Celtics ball! Giannis is now fouled out! Let’s go! It’s still a tie game, we can win! But no, no, no. The Bucks challenged the call and the refs, wrongly, overturned it. Unbelievable. Instead of Giannis fouling out and turning it over to the Celtics with the chance to take the lead, Giannis was awarded the and-one and remained in the game.

A screenshot of Marcus Smart taking the said charge on Giannis Antetokounmpo. The call was reversed to a blocking foul against Smart. Smart later criticized the refs about this call because he thought they reversed it to keep Giannis in the game and was subsequently fined $15K.

The third main story was the health and minutes restriction of Kemba Walker. Kemba physically looked good. He was able to do his thing where he races off the screen right to the three-point line to pull-up. He hustled to contest three-point shots from Milwaukee multiple times. He sacrificed his body to take a charge, that wasn’t called, on, ahem, you guessed it, Giannis. He scored 16 points in just 19 minutes and added on a pair of assists, one of which was a nice wrap around bounce pass to Theis. Hopefully Kemba can continue to get ramped up prior to the playoffs.

The three sure-fire rotational guys who I deemed were net positives in the scrimmages, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Smart, all continued their good play on Friday. Hayward was just solid overall, putting up 14 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists on 6-14 from the field. For the most part, he let the game come to him. He made some key unselfish passes. Jaylen put up 22 (on just 6-15 shooting) but got the the free throw line a lot and competed at a high level. Unfortunately, he picked up his 5th foul early in the 3rd quarter and had to sit on the bench for some time. And Marcus Smart was just doing Marcus Smart things. 23 points on just 11 shot attempts plus great defense. The dude always brings it. Additionally, Daniel Theis contributed nicely with 13 points and 12 rebounds, and, more importantly, was pretty much the C’s only option against the Bucks’ large Lopez brothers. Theis’ value to this team cannot be overlooked.

In other news, Brad Wanamaker actually wasn’t that bad, scoring 14 points on 5-9 shooting with six rebounds. Kanter wasn’t much of a factor, scoring two points on two field goal attempts. Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams combined for zero points and zero field goal attempts in 19 combined minutes, although Semi tried his best to slow down Giannis while he was guarding him.

Look, the Bucks are by far the best defensive team this season. Take a look at the chart:

Defensive MetricNBA Leader2nd Best Mark
defensive ratingBucks (102.3)Raptors (105.5)
opponent effective FG%Bucks (49.2%)Clippers (50.5%)
defensive rebound percentageBucks (79.3%)Heat (76.9%)
Some of the key defensive categories in which the Bucks are the best at in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass.

So, given how dominant defensively the Bucks are, it was nice to see the Celtics put up 112 points especially with Tatum being atrocious and Kemba only playing 19 minutes. Boston didn’t back down from all their size and length. However, the Celtics had just 18 assists on their 36 made field goals (not including the Tatum field goal that went in via the Bucks). For reference, the Bucks assisted on 25 of their 39 made field goals.

So, what’s the bottom line? I loved how the Celtics competed against the Bucks. It was a great reminder that it’s a super fun team to root for. Bucks fans may point to Bledsoe and Connaughton not being active and Middleton’s uncharacteristicly poor shooting performance against the Celtics, but I would argue that Tatum effectively going 1-17 is as impactful as those three Milwaukee excuses combined. Sunday’s game against the Trail Blazers has a trap game vibe to it, but with so many Celtics playing well, and Tatum having dropped 36 against Portland in February, Sunday’s game represents a good opportunity to put more things together.