After 82 games, the 2018 NBA Playoffs are finally here. For the Boston Celtics it seemed like this day would never get here, as the list of walking wounded seem to grow by the day. But this Celtics team has adopted a “next man up” approach better than most and is now looking forward to a first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Boston and Milwaukee have met four times this season, splitting the series 2-2. However, three of those matchups came in the season’s opening month, with the final matchup coming only a week or so ago. Both teams have changed considerably since then, both in terms of personnel and style.
In the early games this season, the Bucks were still coached by Jason Kidd and were still playing a frenetic, trapping style of defense. Today, Kidd has been replaced by Joe Prunty and Milwaukee plays a more traditional form of NBA defense.
In addition, Jabari Parker missed the first three early season matchups, while Eric Bledsoe was only part of the team for the second two games. As a matter of fact, current Celtic Greg Monroe played for Milwaukee against Boston the first two times these teams met!
On the Boston side, the changes are even more dramatic. Kyrie Irving excelled in three games against the Bucks, but he’s out for the season. Marcus Smart is unlikely to be available unless the series goes to a Game 7. Monroe is now wearing a different shade of green and suiting up for the Celtics.
With all that mind, it’s time to see just how these teams match up!
Starting Point Guards
Terry Rozier vs Eric Bledsoe
With Irving and Smart out, Rozier draws the starting nod for Boston. He broke out in a big way in this third season with 11.8 points per game on over 38 percent shooting from behind the arc. Rozier is also one of the best rebounding guards in the NBA with 4.7 rebounds per game, despite playing under 26 minutes per contest. And his defense remains potent at the point of attack, as he’s regularly drawn one of the opposing team’s best guards.
Against the Bucks, Rozier played in three games and averaged 8.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.7 steals off the bench. He’ll be asked to carry heavy load in helping the Celtics to set their offense, while being the primary defender on Bledsoe.
Speaking of Bledsoe, he was acquired from the Phoenix Suns in early December and helped stabilize the point guard spot for the Bucks. He took over from Malcolm Brogdon, who transitioned to a bench role, which in turn helped boost Milwaukee’s bench. In 71 games (all starts) with the Bucks, Bledsoe averaged 17.8 points and 5.1 assists. He shot over 47 percent overall and hit 35 percent of his three-point shots. He’s no longer the bulldog defender he was earlier in his career, but has played better since Milwaukee switched to a more traditional style of defense.
Bledsoe was very good in two games against Boston this season, as he averaged 18.0 points and made 14-of-18 from the field, good for 78 percent. He’s adapted well to playing off the ball, as Giannis Antetokounmpo functions as Milwaukee’s primary ball handler. Bledsoe has also learned how to spot himself by limiting the reckless rim attacks that once defined his game. This has helped him largely stay healthy for two consecutive seasons for the first time in his career. With the “every other day” schedule in the playoffs, Bledsoe could be back on the attack, which will test not only Rozier, but Boston’s limited rim protection. These are two high-level athletes who love to get after it, which should be a joy to watch.
Advantage: Milwaukee. Bledsoe is a little more proven than Rozier, so that gives the Bucks a slight edge here. But it’s closer than it might seem, and if Rozier continues to play as he did down the stretch, this one could easily flip in Boston’s direction.
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum vs Khris Middleton and Tony Snell
At just 21 and 20 years of age respectively, Brown and Tatum are two of the youngest players in the NBA to have the playoff spotlight on them. Brown has shown huge growth from his rookie season, emerging as a true difference maker for the Celtics. Using Per 36 Minutes statistics, which is more reflective given all of Boston’s injuries, he scored 17.0 points per game, while hitting 46.5 percent from the floor and just under 40 percent from three. He also grabbed 5.8 rebounds a night and continued to play solid defense. The biggest quibble with Brown’s game is that he occasionally plays out of control on both ends, with reckless paint attacks on offense and sloppy closeouts on the other end. But Boston lives with that because his athleticism generally shows up in more positive ways.
Tatum on the other hand has come in to the NBA more poised than you could reasonably expect a 19 to 20 year old to be. He’s been a mainstay in the Celtics lineup all year long, playing and starting 80 games, missing only two late season games to rest. Again using Per 36 Minutes statistics, he averaged 16.4 points a night, while drilling 43.4 percent of his three-pointers. In addition, Tatum’s defense was far beyond anything anyone thought it would be. He was a big part in Boston having the league’s best defense.
Both Brown and Tatum were effective against the Bucks in the regular season. Brown averaged 14.8 points over the four contests and Tatum was just behind him with 14.3 of his own. They were also effective getting to the free throw line with a combined 40 attempts. With Irving sidelined, the Celtics will need that much and more from the youngsters.
On the other side, Milwaukee counters with veterans Middleton and Snell. Middleton remains one of the NBA’s most underrated players. Did you know he scored 20.2 point per game, while being the only Buck to start and play all 82 games? On top of the scoring, he snagged 5.2 rebounds and dished out 4.0 assists per night. If you want to nitpick, Middleton’s defense slipped this year, but that seems to be more a function of the crazy defense the Bucks played under Jason Kidd.
His running mate Snell didn’t fare as well this season. After breaking out as a “3&D” player last season, Snell dropped way off this year. He still made over 40 percent of his three-pointers, but took just 3.6 attempts a night. His defense fell off the cliff, as opponents attacked him on a regular basis. The fall off even cost him his starting role for a while midseason.
Middleton was strong versus the Celtics, as he scored 17.3 points over the four game set. He also performed well as a playmaker by leading the Bucks with 5.5 assists per game against Boston. One downside? Middleton shot way below his regular form, as he hit just 4-of-16 three-pointers vs the Celtics. Snell essentially played at his normal rate. He hit 5-of-7 triples against Boston, but did little else.
Advantage: Celtics. This one is also close, but Brown and Tatum have both been consistently good all season, whereas Milwaukee can count on just Middleton and has no idea if Snell will show up. If Boston is going to win this series, this is one spot where they have to advantage from game to game.
Al Horford and Aron Baynes vs Giannis Antetokounmpo and John Henson
Horford has been the Celtics linchpin this season. The consistent anchor of the defense and giving Boston versatile play on offense. Sure, you’d love more than the 12.9 points per game he scored, but he only took the fourth most shots per game on the squad, just ahead of Tatum and Rozier. Volume shooting and scoring has never been Horford’s game. All-around brilliance has been, and he delivered on that in spades. He handed out 4.7 assists per game, while also hitting 42.9 percent of his three-pointers. In many ways, he’s like a 6’10’’ point guard, as the Celtics offense asks him to handle a lot of the playmaking. And then there is the defense. Horford played at an All-Defense level and will garner some consideration in Defensive Player of the Year voting. And he’s going to have to show up in a big way against Antetokounmpo.
Horford’s unexpected tag team partner up front ended up being Aron Baynes. Baynes was slated for a backup role, but after Gordon Hayward went down, the Celtics shifted gears and went bigger than originally planned. Baynes delivered the best season of his career with 6.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, along with the rugged interior defense Boston lacked. Toward the end of the season, as injuries mounted, he even increased his offensive load and started the scoring the ball more.
Versus the Bucks in the regular season, Baynes was what he was all year. Horford however stepped up considerably. He averaged 18.8 points on 70 percent shooting from the field. He also made 6-of-10 from downtown, while grabbing 7.3 rebounds and dishing out 5.3 assists. Boston will need Baynes to do the dirty work inside, and Horford to be at his all-around best in this series.
As far as bigs go for Milwaukee, you might think it starts and ends with Antetokounmpo. Well…you’d be mostly right. The 23 year old launched himself into MVP consideration with a ridiculous stat-line of 26.9 points on just under 53 percent shooting, 10 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. He was often the “do everything” guy for the Bucks. On occasion he’d get a little turnover happy, but that is something you live with when Antetokounmpo is handling the ball as much as he does. Against the Celtics, he was even better, as he tallied 33.5 points on 54 percent shooting, 10.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists over the four game series.
Antetokounmpo’s running mate up front has been John Henson for most of the season. When Henson focuses on his rebounding and protecting the rim, he’s generally very good. When he tries to get involved on offense, it often has disastrous results. He was largely ineffective against Boston, but is playing a completely different role now than for most of the four game set.
Advantage: Milwaukee. Given the presence of Antetokounmpo, most would give the Bucks a big advantage here. But it’s a lot closer than it might seem. Horford has played well against Milwaukee this year and Baynes has been better than Henson this season. The Bucks still get the nod due to Antetokounmpo’s brilliance, but Boston is going to make him work for everything he gets.
Marcus Morris, Greg Monroe, Shane Larkin, Semi Ojeleye, Abdel Nader vs Jabari Parker, Malcolm Brogdon, Matthew Dellavedova, Tyler Zeller, Jason Terry, Shabazz Muhammad
The Celtics depth has been put to the test, as they are down to playing some of the backups to their backups. But each player knows his role and stays in it. Marcus Morris has emerged as one of Boston’s best scorers. He comes off the pine, but is often part of the closing lineup for each half. He scored 13.6 points per game, but has been even better down the stretch, as he regularly carried the Boston offense. Morris comes into each game ready to let it fly and doesn’t take long to get warmed up.
Former Buck Monroe joined the Celtics in February after being bought out by the Suns and has given Boston a stabilizing presence off the bench. He’s hitting 53 percent of his shots for 10.2 points per game with the Celtics, but has really flourished as a passer. He even had a triple-double late in the season. This helps Boston, because they can run all the same sets with Monroe in the games, as they can with Horford. The two don’t often play together, but when they do it tends to look like a passing clinic.
Larkin wasn’t expected to be much more than a third or fourth point guard. But like any good veteran, he stayed ready for when his number was called. Brad Stevens regularly uses Larkin when his team needs a jolt of energy. His speed and quickness on both ends has helped sparked several comebacks this year.
Ojeleye is the final Boston reserve who is likely to see meaningful minutes in this series. He’s played more than could have ever been expected this season due to all the injuries. His defense is generally good, as he can hold his own on players 2-5. But his offensive games is relegated to corner three-pointers, which often miss the mark. He’ll play between 10 and 15 minutes per game, mostly against other reserves and the Celtics will hope they just play even while he’s on the court. If Ojeleye struggles, his minutes will be replaced by fellow rookie Abdel Nader, who has been just as ineffective this season.
Milwaukee’s bench has been a mess all year, due to injuries and inconsistency. Parker is back and playing well, but he missed half the year while recovering from his second town ACL. Since returning, he’s doing his thing as a scorer, hitting for 12.6 points per game on over 48 percent from the field. Parker and Morris largely play similar roles for their respective teams, as forwards who come in ready to score the ball.
Brogdon shifted to a bench role after Milwaukee acquired Bledsoe, but then promptly got hurt. He’s recently returned and the Bucks hope he can help shore up a rocky backup guard group. He’ll play behind both Bledsoe and Snell and could be a part of Milwaukee’s closing lineup when he’s on.
Beyond Parker and Brogdon, it’s a big of a grab bag of players for Joe Prunty. Some nights he goes to former Celtics Zeller and Terry, others he calls on Brown. Lately Dellavedova, who recently returned from injury, and Muhammad, who was signed late in the year, have gotten some run. It’s hard to know where the Bucks will turn from game to game.
Advantage: Boston. It isn’t that the Celtics are deeper than the Bucks in terms of players. But they are functionally deeper. Morris, Monroe, Larkin and Ojeleye all know their roles and what is expected of them. They regularly deliver quality minutes each night. The Bucks can generally rely on Parker and Brogdon, but the rest are major question marks. A ton of depth also isn’t needed in the playoffs, as rotations generally shrink to eight or nine players.
Brad Stevens vs Joe Prunty
Here is where the Celtics single biggest advantage lies. Stevens has pulled every conceivable string this season for Boston. Because of injuries, the Celtics regularly feature players who weren’t expected to play any minutes, never mind key rotation roles for a playoff team. Stevens keeps the mindset of the team positive and doesn’t focus on the negatives or injuries. Each time Boston lost a player, the attitude has been “Back to work with the guys who are available” and it’s worked to the tune of 55 wins. Stevens regularly talks of playing to his players’ strengths and putting them in a position to succeed. Each guy knows his role and what is expected of him and that comes from the sideline. Stevens imbues his players with a confidence to make plays and it translates up and down the roster.
Prunty deserves credit for overhauling the Bucks defense after Jason Kidd was fired. He got away from the hyperactive trapping scheme Kidd had them playing and has the Bucks playing a more traditional scheme where they hedge and recover. Unfortunately, the offense remains relatively unimaginative. It’s a lot of “Get Giannis the ball and get out of his way”, especially late in games. Against good defensive teams, of which Boston is one of the best, this generally doesn’t work. In addition, the bench beyond Parker remains a work in progress. This isn’t Prunty’s fault, as injuries are the main culprit, but not having set roles on the eve of the playoffs isn’t where you want to be.
Advantage: Boston. This is where the Celtics can win this series. Stevens is one of the NBA’s best. And when he’s given time to prepare his team, they’ve generally responded with good results. The playoff schedule will also allow Stevens time to rest players, while also making adjustments from game to game. They’ll throw as many as five to six defenders at Antetokounmpo. They know they can’t stop him, but they’ll make him work, while focusing on taking away the rest of the offense. Boston has also shown the ability to make tremendous in-game adjustments, as they’ve won improbable game after improbable game. This is generally behind the coaching of Stevens, who implores his team to take it possession by possession and focus on the task at hand. This style is what gives the Celtics a massive advantage on the sidelines and may ultimately be the difference in who wins and who loses this series.