How Ime Udoka changed Celtics tactics amid slow Game 7 start, sparking blowout win over Bucks | Brian Robb
BOSTON — It’s easy to look at the box score from Game 7 of the Celtics’ win over the Bucks and think it was all easy for Boston. The truth is far from it. The hosts faced a 10-point deficit in the first quarter after shooting 29% from the field. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown looked set to play early on, but Boston’s supporting cast certainly didn’t as they combined for 2-of-14 shooting in the first quarter. Milwaukee was giving up 3s elsewhere in its attempt to slow down the stars and no one in Boston could make them pay sooner.
The situation could have been something that panicked and pressured the entire team after Boston trailed six points after the first frame ended. The nightmarish shooting night of the Celtics’ last 7 home game (2018 vs. the Cavs) was fresh in the minds of fans and potentially in the thoughts of the important Celtics who were involved, including four members of the top five who remained in this team four years later. .
The Bucks weren’t playing very well themselves, but they were betting big to get big. Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo were locked in and defended the paint well. Easy baskets (the Cs were 2 of 10 inside the arc in the first quarter) weren’t available by the rim. Instead, the Milwaukee coaching staff calculated that their best bet would be for the Celtics’ supporting cast to dwindle in the moment.
Udoka saw that reality in the opening 12 minutes and made some critical adjustments that allowed the Celtics to weather their nightmarish start and stabilize the ship.
Break away from the usual rotation plans with the stars
Playing Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum together has almost never been seen in the middle of a first half all season. Udoka always preferred to stagger the rest of his stars so that one or the other served as top scorer and centered the attack around them while the other rested.
The start of the second quarter is usually the time for Tatum to play with Brown to rest. However, this time the calculation was different. No one in Boston’s supporting cast was hitting shots early (2 of 14 in the first quarter) and Boston’s offense looked like a mess on many possessions. The Celtics needed to avoid falling into a deeper hole and so Udoka responded with a sense of urgency usually reserved for the second half. There would be no rest for the co-stars. After sitting out for a minute each at the end of the first quarter (separately), the two were back in the fold in the second period
“That wasn’t the plan,” admitted Udoka. “We went with our original rotations and we didn’t have the best offensive first quarter. It felt good to be down just six, 26-20, and we were defending at a high level, but we had to clean up offensively and we didn’t like the pace. So bring these guys back to give us a spark and realize this is game 7. Nothing to save guys as long as another game is coming soon even though it’s the same day between us wanting to end the series and give to these guys a little more racing.
Udoka’s bet was risky. Playing Tatum and Brown any longer early would risk wearing them down in the fourth quarter. However, Udoka saw the red flags offensively. He knew the team needed to dig a hole early instead of pressing as the game progressed. Rely on top Boston players early and often did.
Switch to attack rather than defense in the backcourt
Derrick White and Marcus Smart went on the court at 3 of 17 in Game 7, the signs of which appeared early in the first quarter as both players missed a host of looks. With Grant Williams denying early open jumpers before he got in and no other reliable shots to be found, Udoka leaned heavily on Pritchard for the big first few minutes to help keep the ground spread around the Boston stars. Pritchard was a willing and capable shooter and that’s exactly what was needed to help stretch the Bucks’ defense with their tactics.
Boston opened the frame with a 12-4 run to get back into the game and later in the second half Pritchard helped put the game away, finishing with a bench-high 14 points in 17 minutes among benchers. Sacrificing defense for offense isn’t an easy choice in any Game 7, but Udoka saw what the Celtics needed at a critical moment in the game.
By the time the second half rolled around, Udoka’s tactics had clearly paid off. Boston’s offense got back to rolling after a slow start and it helped the team overcome Jayson Tatum’s foul issues in the third quarter after already taking a lead instead of playing catch-up after a first half ugly offensive. With a 15-point lead by the time Tatum returned for the fourth quarter, the floodgates were set to open for the Celtics’ 3-point shot all over the floor with the team playing free and Tatum having new legs.
These types of in-game chess moves by Udoka stuck with Boston’s top talent as the Celtics fired the defending champions.
“For a freshman coach, it’s almost – I feel like it’s unheard of,” Brown said of Udoka’s assurance. “His level of assurance, his level of confidence never changed. Even when we were down 2-1 or 3-2, you could tell from the look in his eyes that we were going to win this series. We just had need to manage our affairs and sometimes you can walk into those moments and walk away from it all, or start making excessive adjustments.And he didn’t.As we maintained our balance, kept our confidence and found a way to win the series.
As good as Boston’s turnaround has been this season, Udoka’s magic touch has been at the center of it all, reversing a rocky start for himself at times out of the gate. His moves won’t show up in the box score, but hitting the right buttons in the critical early moments opened the door for the team to advance to the Eastern Finals for the fourth time in six seasons.