Math problem: Celtics bury Bucks under weight of historic 3-point margin

Amid the Golden State Warriors‘ five-year reign of terror on the league, you started to hear the phrase “math problem” a lot. What it meant, quite simply, was the Warriors’ 3-pointers were worth more than your 2-pointers, and over time, if you were on the short end of that arithmetic, you just couldn’t keep up. 

The Rockets took this to the extreme with James Harden. Launch a million 3s, and let the math work its magic. It got them as far as the conference finals, which is where the Boston Celtics are now headed after they buried the Milwaukee Bucks under a pile of 3s both on Sunday in Game 7 and over the course of the series. 

Final score on Sunday: Boston 109, Milwaukee 81. Boston made 22 3-pointers (66 points), while Milwaukee made just four 3s (12 points). That’s a 54-point gap from beyond the arc. Factor in Milwaukee’s 22-point advantage in the paint (48-26), and that’s a 32-point margin between Boston’s 3s and Milwaukee’s paint points. 

The Celtics won by 28. 

You do the math. 

This was the theme for the entire series, in which the Celtics made 53 more 3-pointers than the Bucks (110-57). That’s a 159-point advantage for Boston in 3s over the seven games, a historical gap that more than covered the 90-point surplus that the Bucks accumulated in paint points. 

Without Khris Middleton, their most voluminous 3-point converter in the regular season and a Celtics killer, the Bucks did everything they could to keep up with Boston’s 3-point barrage, but as the series went on they just kept falling further behind the curve. It came to a breaking point on Sunday. You just can’t lose the 3-point battle 66-12 and win a basketball game, let alone a Game 7 in the NBA playoffs. 

Mike Budenholzer is going to catch hell for letting the Celtics fire up 292 3-pointers over the course of the series. It’s low-hanging criticism for a Milwaukee defense that has been annually maligned for its drop-coverage, protect-the-paint-at-all-costs strategies. But I’m staying out of that one. I’ve criticized Budenholzer in the past. The man won a title last season, and he made it to Game 7 against what might well be the best team in the league without an All-NBA-caliber player in Middleton. 

You just have to pick your poison. In Game 1, Milwaukee’s efforts to shut off the paint with three giants in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis looked brilliant. They converged on every breach, swallowed Boston whole, and when they weren’t creating a turnover and getting out in transition, they were forcing the Celtics to settle for 50 3-pointers. 

Settle is the operative term. Those Game 1 3s were not on Boston’s terms. They weren’t a product of ball movement. The Celtics weren’t creating leverage, driving and kicking into rhythmic attempts. Those 50 3-pointers were on Milwaukee’s terms, and it was indeed not a coincidence that the Bucks won that game going away. 

As the series went on, however, a greater percentage of Boston’s 3-point attempts came on their terms, and as the quality of those looks improved, so too did the results. For the series, Boston wound up shooting 38 percent from 3 as a team. Milwaukee shot 28 percent. 

When a team that shoots 88 more 3-pointers than its opponent also makes those 3s at a 10-percent better clip, that team, almost always, is going to win. That team was the Celtics. Yeah, Boston had a Giannis problem. Everyone has a Giannis problem. But the Bucks had a math problem. And in the end, the numbers were just too much to overcome. 

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