NBA

NBA Game of the Week: Elite defenses set to collide as the Celtics travel to Milwaukee

By Sports Desk February 14, 2023

The Boston Celtics will hit the road on Tuesday to take on the Milwaukee Bucks in a potential Eastern Conference Finals preview.

In a tantalising battle between the top two teams in the East, it will also be a clash between two of the NBA's top-four defenses this season.

The Celtics will head into the contest boasting the rare statistical profile of the fourth-best defense (conceding 110.5 points per 100 possessions) and the third-best offense (116.8 points per 100 possessions). 

Meanwhile, the Bucks have relied primarily on their second-ranked defense (109.7), grinding out wins despite their offense ranking only 21st (112.6).

While their offensive production has differed, the way these two sides approach the game is very similar. They are two of the most perimeter-centric offenses in the league, both top-five in average three-point attempts, while both also sit bottom-five in average points in the paint.

It makes sense that, because both of these teams so heavily value the three-point shot, they also make just as much of an effort to disrupt that area for their opponents. They are both top-six in limiting opponent three-point makes, presenting an interesting conundrum.

Two teams who want to bomb away from deep, who also know exactly how to run their opposition off the three-point line, forcing them to take a step inside and attempt less valuable two-point jump shots, or daring them to finish at the basket against elite rim protectors.

They are also the best two teams in the league at limiting opposition free throw attempts, meaning that even when they force opponents inside into traffic, they are challenging without fouling.

But the wrench in that equation is Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, who lives in the paint, contributes nearly half (19.0) of his side's 45.4 points in the paint per game, and leads the league in free throw attempts (13.8 per game).

It puts the opposition in a quandary – do you follow the scouting report and try to limit the Bucks' three-point shooting, potentially giving Antetokounmpo the free rein to dominate inside, or do you go all-in on stopping the former back-to-back MVP and force somebody else to hit shots?

That is not to say the Celtics' stars are incapable of getting into the paint – with both Jaylen Brown (11.7 paint points per game) and Jayson Tatum (11.5) in the top-20 in the league – but Brown is the primary slasher of the pair, and will miss this game with a broken bone in his face.

Brown will be joined on the sideline by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, meaning Tatum will not just be the Celtics' most important offensive player, he will also be their top perimeter defender.

The Celtics are struggling in the health department right now, while the Bucks are trending in the right direction. Both Milwaukee All-Stars – Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday – will play, and All-NBA wing Khris Middleton has games of 22 points and 24 points in his past three after recovering from his own serious injury.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Boston Celtics – Robert Williams III

Smart will be missed, but there is arguably not a more valuable defender to the Celtics than Robert Williams III – especially against an interior force like Antetokounmpo.

The 25-year-old came from out of nowhere to force his way onto the NBA All-Defensive Second Team last season, finishing fourth in the league for blocks per game (2.2). That block figure has come back down to earth this season – still a team-leading 1.2 per game – but, simply put, the Celtics are a force defensively with him on the court. 

During his minutes, the Celtics concede only 104.8 points per 100 possessions – the fourth-best figure for any player averaging at least 20 minutes per game – which is over five points better than the league's best defense this season (Cleveland Cavaliers, 108.9).

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