Celtics picking Bucks apart with pick-and-pop, pick-and-roll game

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MILWAUKEE -- Gordon Hayward gave Al Horford a subtle head-nod, prompting him to set the pick. 

As expected, his defender (Khris Middleton) and Horford’s defender (Brook Lopez) collapsed on Hayward, leaving Horford open for a wide-open jumper if Hayward could just swing the ball to Horford in time. 

Sterling Brown, on the wing at the opposite side of the court,  was thinking the same thing so he began to drift in Horford’s direction. 

Lopez, trying to recover to contest a potential shot attempt by Horford coupled with Brown’s slight shift towards Horford, left Brown a wide-open runway of sorts to play with. 

Hayward recognized this at the very last second, and made a pass to a cutting Jaylen Brown as he dove into the paint. 

The ball soon found its way into the hands of Brown, who then threw down a two-handed dunk over Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was defending Jayson Tatum in the corner but came over and tried and contest the shot attempt. 

Yes, it was one of the many highlight-worthy plays from Boston’s 112-90 Game 1 win over Milwaukee. 

But it also showed the power of the Celtics’ pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop game, which has been effective for most of this season. 

And five games into the Celtics’ playoff run — all five wins — it appears to continue being a key factor in Boston’s success. 

That success really stems from the play of two players: Al Horford and Kyrie Irving.

“Al and Kyrie are going to draw attention,” said Brown. “That means other guys are going to have opportunities, and I’m one of those guys. I just have to be ready to make the right play, play the right way.”

Which is among the many reasons why the play has been such an effective set for the Celtics most of this season. 

“Kyrie is so dangerous with all the things that he can do,” said Horford. “I feel like it puts other teams on their heels. He does a really good job of knowing when to attack, when to pass it. That’s why I feel like we’ve had so much success with that this year.”

It also highlights Irving’s passing game, which until he arrived in Boston was often seen as a weakness or as something he did not do much of in games. 

Nearing the end of his second season with the Celtics, Irving averaged a career-high 6.9 assists per game this past season. 

But Irving’s passing ability is something that Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has been impressed with long before he began coaching the six-time All-Star. 

“Kyrie’s been this type of passer since I watched him play when he was 18 years old,” Stevens said.

Stevens recalled being around Irving, 18 at the time, when he was involved with USA Basketball and Stevens was a court coach. 

“One quarter into that day,” Stevens recalled, “(USA basketball assistant coach) Jeff Capel came over and said, ‘He doesn’t need to play anymore. He’s on the team.’ Everybody knew he was the best player there.”

The two would cross paths later on when Stevens, head coach at Butler, faced Irving and the Duke Blue Devils.

“The pass was the scariest thing,” Stevens said. “He just picked you apart with the pass. So I’ve always thought he was a tremendous passer. He has great vision, great understanding of when to get rid of it, great touch on his passes, all that stuff.”

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