Forsberg: Why Time Lord is the most important player in Bucks-C’s series originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
In a series involving a former MVP, a player that might wiggle his way into the top five in voting for that award this season, two All-Stars, and two All-Defense stalwarts, it feels somewhat odd to suggest that somebody else might be the most important player when the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks joust in Round 2 of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
But such is the case when you have two talent-filled teams and one Robert Williams.
At the end of Boston’s four-game sweep of the Nets, Williams got a chance to shake some of the rust accumulated during a month-long absence following late-season meniscus surgery. The Celtics are hoping a long ramp to Sunday’s Game 1 at TD Garden will further aid Williams in looking more like the roaming menace whose presence makes you wonder if Boston’s defense this season has a chance to be historically good.
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Williams will not be the one assigned to Giannis Antetokounmpo (he’ll get occasional reps but will almost always have help at the center spot). But Williams will have a heavy hand in supporting 35-year-old Al Horford with that assignment. The Celtics will ask Williams to roam off perimeter shooters and provide additional aid near the basket whenever Antetokounmpo attacks.
If Williams forces Antetokounmpo to think twice about drives or settle for perimeter jump shots, then the Celtics have a much better chance of emerging in what very likely will be a grind-it-out series.
It’s hard to get a firm gauge on Williams’ potential impact because the Celtics and Bucks played three of their four meetings this season in calendar year 2021, and before Boston shifted Williams to his free safety role. Still, in the 38 minutes that Williams was on the floor with Antetokounmpo, the Bucks had a net rating of minus-14.8 with a meager offensive rating of 98.8.
Antetokounmpo shot 57.1 percent (20 of 35) against Boston in the 64 minutes without Williams on the court and 47.8 percent (11 of 23) when he was. The Bucks were outscored by 12 in those minutes that Antetokounmpo and Williams shared the floor.
Boston’s numbers with Horford on the floor were maybe even more glossy, spotlighting his ability to make things as difficult as possible for Antetokounmpo. But, especially with the absence of Khris Middleton putting an even greater emphasis on Antetokounmpo’s offensive output, the Celtics desperately need someone like Williams to help make everything even tougher on the former MVP.
In three games against the Bucks this season, Williams averaged 11 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and two blocks over 33.7 minutes per game. Boston had its preferred starting lineup intact for a December 17 matchup and outscored the Bucks’ starters by nine over nine minutes of matchup time. Most notably, Boston had a defensive rating of 88.9 in what is an admittedly minuscule sample.
The Celtics enjoyed some measure of success against Antetokounmpo in Horford’s first go-around in green but often had the luxury of deploying beefy lineups that also included a bruiser like Aron Baynes. Building a wall to prevent transition opportunities isn’t as easy this time around but the Celtics have five plus-defenders in their starting lineup — and are confident in the bench maintaining that standard — to make everything difficult.
The key will be limiting Antetokounmpo’s opportunities in transition. The Celtics owned the NBA’s best halfcourt defense this season, holding teams to an offensive rating of 90.4 per Cleaning the Glass data. If teams allow Boston to get settled then Marcus Smart can pester at the point of attack, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can swarm with long arms on the perimeter, Horford can hold down the back line, and Williams can pick his spots to pounce.
But even live-ball rebounds can turn into transition opportunities so Boston has to be crisp on both sides. And it’s on the entire team to take on the challenge of limiting Antetokounmpo.
“It’s a team defensive thing against [Antetokounmpo]. Like last series, we feel we have a lot of versatility and size as well, so you can throw different books at him,” said Udoka. “But that is the game for him.
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“I think he’s second in the league in points in the paint per game, and so obviously a huge part of it in transition gets him going. So we want to limit his paint points as much as we can, limit the fouls and free throws And obviously, it’s easier said than done.
“So, the thing with us is meeting him with some physicality, not let him get a head of steam and get into the paint without being touched. Like your pick-up points and your contact points to be a little bit higher than — a lot of times these guys are touching him almost at the dots or the foul circle and it’s too late by that point. understand the task at hand and how he scores and when to take that away from.”
Ultimately, it’s Williams’ defensive impact that could dictate the series. If he has any of the rust displayed against Brooklyn then that puts a huge amount of stress on Horford and Grant Williams to neutralize Antetokounmpo. If Time Lord is back to his chaos-creation ways, then the Celtics are going to put all that stress on a Middleton-less supporting cast.