A lot of this has to do with their pick and roll coverage. Milwaukee is a drop coverage heavy team, which means the big man is dropping into the paint all the way to the rim as the pick is happening while the guard is going over the top of the screen to corral the ballhandler into the shooter. The big is in position to make a play at the rim whether it is against the ballhandler or the roller, like Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez play it here in the example below.
As more teams in the NBA have shifted their offensive focus to prioritize either three-point attempts or layups, defenses are reacting by resorting to this coverage. This is where the midrange shot comes in because the Bucks are willing to give this up. in the open court. For example, when they split their last two games of the year against the Philadelphia, the 76ers produced 34 points from midrange combined in those contests. The San Antonio Spurs also gashed them for 32 points from midrange in their win against the Bucks this season.
The Celtics are perfectly suited to attack the Bucks’ defense in the midrange. During the regular season, the Celtics averaged 17 midrange shots a game, connecting on 42 percent of them. Kyrie Irving, in particular, can do plenty of damage at this distance. During the regular season, he made 50 percent of his midrange shots, the third most frequent shot he took behind the above-the-break three and restricted area shots.
Irving will get a lot of looks like the ones below when he comes off a pick-and-roll in the half-court setting. On that play, Giannis Antetokounmpo is dropping into the restricted area with Bledsoe pursing on the backside. This is too much space for Irving, who drops in a floater. Then again in transition coming off a re-screen, Lopez is in drop coverage with Malcolm Brogdon in pursuit on the backside, which opens the door for another Irving floater.
It is not just Irving who has to take advantage of the Bucks in drop coverage but the Celtics bigs have to make them pay with pick and pops. Al Horford has been great in these situations all season with a point per possession, shooting 47 percent on 168 possessions according to Synergy Sports Technology.
As Irving comes off a Horford screen, Lopez is backpedaling to protect the rim and Bledsoe chasing from behind leaving Horford the opportunity to pop to the elbow where Irving hits him with a well-placed pocket pass. The distance is too much for Lopez to cover, especially with his momentum going the opposite direction and it is an easy jumper for Horford.
If the Celtics can successfully make the Bucks pay for leaving the midrange shot open, it will force them to adjust by drawing the bigs out of the restricted area, leaving it vulnerable to attacks. Irving is too fast for most bigs in space and with his court vision, he’ll be able to find the openings in the defense.
This is precisely what happened with Daniel Theis setting a screen higher and forcing Lopez to have to meet Irving outside the paint, creating an open runway for a rolling Theis dunk.
If this is the shot the Bucks are willing to live with, the Celtics have to take (and make) them and force the Bucks to adjust. Forcing the adjustment will make it harder for the Bucks to defend the rim, which is the backbone to their defense. The shot that is looked at with disgust in most analytics offices is the shot that the Celtics must use to slay the Bucks.
Correction: A previous version referred to Brook Lopez as Robin Lopez. This has been fixed.