BOSTON 105, MILWAUKEE 102 (OT)
While both teams played excellent defense, made several clutch plays, showed guts and resilience, the difference was Boston's championship experience and Milwaukee's lack thereof.
Even so, the Bucks had several factors working for them: Since both teams were playing the second of back-to-back games, Milwaukee's young legs were routinely a step quicker than Boston's geriatric Big Three. Plus, the Biggest Methuselah was down and out with a boo-boo on his shin.
One result was that Andrew Bogut had an exceptional game in the middle -- 21 points (including three tip-ins) and 13 rebounds. Although he was successful on four low-post dances, most of Bogut's points resulted in his clever movements without the ball. For sure, his pivot-play is often predictable and slow in developing, but his off-the-ball execution within the team concept was impressive. Also, Bogut's questionable defense was never put to the test with Shaq out, with Jermaine O'Neal no longer a threat to score in the paint, and with Glen Davis evolving into a jump-shooter.
Drew Gooden reaffirmed that he's little more than an average big man -- 2 of 5 from the field, 4 rebounds, 6 points.
John Salmons shoots first and never asks questions -- 3 of 10, 9 points. But in the early going, he was the only Buck who could put the ball through the red ring.
Carlos Delfino keeps both teams in the game -- 6 of 15, 7 assists, 15 important points but 5 turnovers. Unfortunately, his last two turnovers occurred in OT and were critical -- an airborne pass into Boston's defensive rotation that was easily snagged by Paul Pierce, and a last second attempt to throw a touchdown pass that was likewise intercepted.
Ersan Ilyasova contributed dynamic offense off the bench -- 5 of 10, 7 rebounds, 15 points. Too bad his defense was atrocious, especially when he lost Pierce and yielded a pair of unattended layups.
Keyon Dooling did a superb job when Brandon Jennings was taking a blow -- 4 of 7, 2 assists, zero turnovers, 10 points. In fact, the Bucks' ball- and player-movement was much snappier when Dooling was on the court.
Corey Maggette -- 2 of 6, zero assists, 2 TOs, 9 points -- is worthless without the ball in his hand, and his one-on-one game was contained by Boston's alertly choreographed defense.
An interesting subplot to the game was the confrontation between Rajon Rondo and Jennings. Even though the former over-handled the ball several times and had an erratic performance -- 7 of 10, 15 assists, 17 points, but 6 turnovers -- he still dominated the latter.
Jennings' numbers -- 5 of 13, 4 assists, 3 turnovers, 13 points -- fail to record his three airballs, and the fact that Rondo zipped past him into the shadow of the basket on 18 separate occasions. (Jennings returned the favor four times.) The fleet-footed second-year point guard can't defend, can't shoot from the outside, can't finish in heavy traffic, but does make on-target passes while in motion.
For the Celtics, Pierce asserted himself in the first quarter and in the extra period, winding up with a game-high 28 points that included 11-11 from the stripe.
Kevin Garnett made a couple of nice spin moves in the endgame, threw an uncalled-for belligerent elbow, but otherwise was mostly a non-factor -- 5 of 15, 5 rebounds, 13 points.
At age 35, Ray Allen can't always create sufficient shooting space coming off his beloved weak-side screens. But he benefited when the Bucks consistently overreacted to ball-penetration (especially by Pierce) by collapsing four defenders into the paint and leaving Allen unattended. Consequently, all three of his successful treys resulted from kick-out passes. Except for a botched free-throw at the tail-end of regulation that would have secured the game, Allen was steady-as-he-goes, knocking down 9 of 20 shots and totaling 23 points.
The wrong O'Neal blocked three shots in the first half, came up with a crucial tip-in in OT, but was otherwise invisible.
The 6-9 Glen Davis employed his lower center-of-gravity to keep the 7-0 Bogut off-balance on numerous Milwaukee possessions. And Big Baby's offensive output -- 5 of 9, 14 points -- was a huge help.
In the final reckoning, Boston's offense had more zip, was more versatile, and created much better shots. (Boston's assist-to-turnovers was 24-16 as opposed to Milwaukee's 17-15.) In addition, the Celtics defense was more precise when it had to be -- particularly their weak-side and baseline rotations that plugged the holes created by their quick-doubling of Milwaukee's high screen/rolls.
Give credit to the visitors, though. They hustled on every play and never gave up. But what do Scott Skiles charges need to catch up with the Celtics?
Better defense from their frontcourt players so that their teammates can stay in touch with sharpshooters like Ray Allen. Jennings experiencing a steeper learning curve. A backup center. A more stable small forward so that Delfino can operate off the bench. And a miraculous healing of Bogut's still aching right elbow.
However, the long, grinding season has just begun. From now till then, the Bucks can concentrate on improving every aspect of their game plan. At the same time, the Celtics will have to concentrate on simply surviving -- simply because the older a team gets, the faster it gets older.