A. Sherrod Blakely

Celtics defense reemerges in Game 5

Celtics defense reemerges in Game 5

BOSTON – It was bound to happen sooner or later.

The Celtics’ defense has been too good this season to continue to get broken down one game after another by Milwaukee.

And the 92-87 Game 5 win Tuesday night was the breakthrough performance they had been longing for after four straight sub-par performances defensively.

The Celtics held the Bucks to several playoff lows on Tuesday, such as scoring (87 points), field-goal percentage (.348) and three-point shooting percentage (.273).

The return of Marcus Smart certainly bolstered Boston's defense. But more than anything, the Celtics played on a defensive string most of the night which was evident in Boston having a team defensive rating of 87.2 for Game 5 - their best defensive rating in the postseason.

Here are five other takeaways from the victory that gave the Celtics a 3-2 lead heading into Game 6 Thursday night in Milwaukee:

50-50 BALLS


One of the domino effects of having Marcus Smart back in the lineup in Game 5, was his impact on getting loose balls. According to NBA.com/stats, Smart had two loose balls recovered which was part of Boston corralling 14 loose balls in Game 5 which was a series-high for the Celtics and loose balls recovered.

AL HORFORD


Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all; at least that’s what seems to work for Celtics head coach Brad Stevens in his dealings with Al Horford who made a major impact on Game 5 in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. He had a double-double of 22 points and 14 rebounds, but he also led the team in critical, below-the-radar categories such as contested shots (15) and box outs (12).

SEMI OJELEYE


A last-minute insertion into the starting lineup, Semi Ojeleye’s presence was felt. His defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo was important for Boston, obviously. But he also contributed in other categories, finishing second on the team in contested shots (10) and box-outs (8), the latter being critical to Boston’s continued dominance of the Bucks on the boards.

MORE PLAY IN THE POST


Boston got great mileage out of working in the post, but probably could have gone there more frequently. While the praise of Brad Stevens’ team continued to flow in, Stevens recognized his team has to do a better job at getting action in the post for Game 6. “We’ve got to be better at getting there, to the rim, and making decisions there,” Stevens said. “And I thought we did a good job at times, but we’ve just got to be a lot more consistent at it. Because they’re coming, they’ve got great length, they’re hard to score on. You know, we only threw it in there, I think, a couple times in the fourth quarter, to the post, and we probably need to be better at action and spacing around it.”

LIMITING THE GREEK FREAK'S TRANSITION GAME


There are few in the NBA who can strike fear in a defense the way Giannis Antetokounmpo can when he’s out in transition. Not only did Boston limit him to 10 shots taken, but of his 16 points, only two were of the fast-break variety according to NBA.com/stats. “It was our fifth time playing them,” said Boston’s Jaylen Brown. “Giannis, we wanted to limit in transition. And I think we did a pretty good job with that.”

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Bucks approaching Game 5 as if they'll see Smart

Bucks approaching Game 5 as if they'll see Smart

BOSTON – When it comes to the playoffs, it’s always a good idea to have as many contingency plans as possible.

For the Milwaukee Bucks, that means making sure they are prepared to see Marcus Smart make his series debut tonight.

The 6-foot-4 guard has been given clearance to potentially play in tonight’s pivotal Game 5 matchup.

As much as Smart and the Celtics would love for him to be on the floor tonight, Brad Stevens cautions that his return tonight is not a given.

“He still has to go through some things later this morning after our shootaround, and then we’ll see how he feels after that,” Stevens told reporters. “If he feels good, then he’s been cleared physically to go. If he has any pain or anything comes up, then we’ll hold him out.”

Regardless of how those tests go, the Bucks are approaching Game 5 as if Smart will be on the floor at some point.

And while he hasn’t played in more than a month, the Bucks are well aware of how impactful a potential return by Smart can be.

Khris Middleton is one of the Bucks players who'll see plenty of Smart.

“He’s a competitor,” Middleton told NBC Sports Boston. “He goes hard. He’s a crafty player, a smart player. Great defensive player. So, you’ve just gotta be smart with him. He’s a guy that can make plays with the ball in his hands and knock down some big shots. Just gotta do a great job of trying to contain him if he plays tonight. We’ve just gotta be aware of him on the defensive side.”

Milwaukee interim coach Joe Prunty acknowledged Smart is indeed on the scouting report for tonight’s game.

“We know how he plays. We know how he plays within their system,” Prunty said. “He’ll definitely add an element for them. If he does play, we’re prepared for that.”

A potential Smart return comes at a time when the Celtics’ defense, which came into the postseason with a league-best defensive rating of 101.5, has actually been among the worst defenses in the playoffs.

Boston’s has had a defensive rating of 99.1 when Smart has played.

And while there’s no telling if Smart in the lineup will make that big a difference to the team’s defense against the Bucks, there’s no denying Smart playing tonight will provide a much-needed boost for Boston.

“He does a good job for them at both ends of the floor, by defending and on offense, moving the ball, facilitate a lot on the offensive end for them,” said Milwaukee’s Thon Maker. “With us, we have to find a way to match his energy if he does play tonight.”

Even though Smart hasn’t played in a competitive game in more than a month, the Bucks have every intention of going at him as though he had played in every game of this series.

“He’s still been working,” Middleton said. “You can’t disrespect him just because he hasn’t played in a while. You have to play him like he’s been playing all year long or this whole series, which is, get after him some too.”

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Celtics embrace best-of-three, look to bring the intensity

Celtics embrace best-of-three, look to bring the intensity

BOSTON – This best-of-seven series between Boston and Milwaukee has been reduced to a best-of-three affair with the two teams locked into a 2-2 series tie.

As we’ve seen in the past, there’s an increased amount of pressure for both teams as a series progresses.

Still, with the Celtics being at home and the stakes being what they are – the loser will be facing playoff elimination in Game 6 on Thursday – a heightened level of stress for all involved seems a given right?

“You can certainly look at it that way,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “Or you can look at it and say we have been around basketball all of our lives and we got a best of three to go on to the next round. It’s a challenge, it’s fun. It’s what you’re here for.”

Jaylen Brown has been one of Boston’s top players in this series, averaging a team-high 23.8 points per game.

Brown knows as well as anyone how these are highly stressful times but understands his focus – and the rest of the Celtics' for that matter – has to be on doing whatever is needed to come away with a Game 5 win.

“It’s one game at a time,” Brown said. “That’s how I look at it. We come out and play as if it’s Game 1. Be relaxed but also come out and have that same intensity that we brought in Game 4, Game 1 and Game 2 and see where that takes us.”

Here are five below-the-radar storylines heading into Game 5:

HORFORD IN THE POST

Boston has been at its best in this series when Al Horford has had a good amount of touches in the half court where he can work on Milwaukee’s low-post defenders. According to nba.com/stats, Horford is averaging 5.3 points on post-ups which is third in the playoffs behind San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge (10.5) and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid (6.5).

SPOTTING MIDDLETON

Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton has been scoring in an array of ways for the Bucks, with a sizable chunk of the scoring damage he inflicts coming by way of the spot-up shot. In fact, he’s averaging 8.0 points on spot-ups in the postseason which trails only Portland’s Al Farouq Aminu (11.5).

PASSING ROZIER

Terry Rozier will be looking to step his scoring game up tonight, for sure. His passing game in the playoffs has really strong. In fact, only Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons (88.5) has more passes in the postseason thus far than Rozier (76.8) according to nba.com/stats.

SEMI OJELEYE

While Giannis Antetokounmpo has had success against pretty much every Boston Celtic in the playoffs, rookie forward Semi Ojeleye has done as good a job as anyone when it comes to defending Antetokounmpo. Don’t be surprised if Ojeleye sees a spike in minutes played in Game 5. In Boston’s Game 4 loss, Ojeleye saw more than 17 minutes of court time, with Marcus Morris (he played 26 minutes, 19 seconds) being the only Celtic reserve to log more minutes.

BUCK-ING HISTORY

The Milwaukee Bucks are shooting 54.2 percent from the field in the playoffs which is tops among all playoff teams. That includes them shooting at least 50 percent from the field in their past three games, something Milwaukee hasn’t done in the playoffs since April 27-May 1, 1990.

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