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Playoff Preview: Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks

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The Celtics are underdogs to a team other than the Cavaliers for the first time in a few years.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

As seemed almost pre-ordained as far back as the turn of the calendar year, the Boston Celtics will play the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the NBA Playoffs. Milwaukee has homecourt advantage, making it the first time Boston will start a postseason series on the road since 2016.

· Game 1 – at Milwaukee – Sunday 4/28 - 1:00 PM EST – ABC

· Game 2 – at Milwaukee – Tuesday 4/30 – 8:00 PM EST– TNT

· Game 3 – at Boston – Friday 5/3 – 8:00 PM EST – ESPN

· Game 4 – at Boston – Monday 5/6 – 7:00 PM EST– TNT

· Game 5 – at Milwaukee – Wednesday 5/8 – Time TBD – TNT *if necessary

· Game 6 – at Boston – Friday 5/10 – Time TBD – ESPN *if necessary

· Game 7 at Milwaukee – Monday 5/13 – Time TBD – TNT *if necessary

During the regular season the Celtics and Bucks met three times, with Milwaukee winning two of the three matchups:

· Milwaukee 113 at Boston 117

· Milwaukee 120 at Boston 107

· Boston 97 at Milwaukee 98

It’s hard to take a whole lot from those matchups, as Boston was missing key players in each game. In addition, Milwaukee has re-made their bench after adding George Hill and Nikola Mirotic via in-season trades. Both teams will also be without starting guards to at least start the series, as both Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon are still rehabbing from injuries that occurred late in the regular season. As always, let’s preview this series Brad Stevens-style

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Starting Ballhandlers

Kyrie Irving vs Eric Bledsoe

On their face, Irving’s numbers against Milwaukee in the regular season look pretty good. He averaged 21.7 points, 6.3 assists and a surprising 1.3 blocks. But a deeper look shows some both good and bad things. Let’s start with where thing went tough for Irving: He shot just 35.7% on two-point shots against the Bucks. This can be attributed to a couple of things. He most-often saw Eric Bledsoe as his primary defender and Bledsoe is no slouch on that end of the floor. He’s both quick and physical and hard to finish over. When Irving was able to beat Bledsoe to the paint, he’s immediately in a forest of long-armed defenders. In addition, Irving took just two free throws in 113 minutes. To sum it up, he was struggling to finish inside and didn’t get himself to the line.

On the plus side, Irving drilled 11-of-24 three-pointers in the regular season against the Bucks. The 6.3 assists per game tells us he was moving the ball. And he also managed to sneak in for five offense rebounds over the three games. That all says Irving is doing just fine when he has space to make plays. Most encouraging of all? Boston was +17 in the 113 minutes Irving played.

On the other end, Bledsoe’s poor play against the Celtics continued. He averaged 11.3 points, 2.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and three turnovers per game. All of those numbers are considerably worse than Bledsoe’s season-long stat-line. Most telling of all, Bledsoe was a shocking -35 in 95 minutes against Boston.

Advantage: Boston. To put it simply: this is a matchup Boston has to win. Given the challenges the Celtics could have elsewhere, Irving has to win his head-to-head battle with Bledsoe. While his finishing inside and lack of free throws is a bit of a concern, everything else from the regular season leans strongly towards Irving. And Bledsoe has had to carry a heavier load without Brogdon to act as a secondary playmaker. If Irving can dominate this matchup, Boston’s odds of winning the series go way up.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Starting Wings

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown vs Khris Middleton and Sterling Brown

Two players with the surname Brown will play a big role in deciding how this series will go. Even though Smart’s recovery seems to be progressing along faster than anyone could have expected (or maybe not since Smart apparently is Wolverine), he’s likely to at least start the series on the sidelines. On the Milwaukee side, the Bucks already announced that Brogdon will sit at least the first two games of the series before being re-evaluated.

That puts both Jaylen Brown and Sterling Brown in the starting lineup to open the series. Both fared well as starters in the first round. Jaylen Brown was also one of Boston’s better players in the regular season against Milwaukee. He averaged 18 points on 60.9% from the field, six rebounds and 2.5 steals per game in the two games he played against the Bucks. Outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks don’t have a lot of great athletes on the roster. Brown will have to use his size/speed combination to get past defenders for easy finishes. Milwaukee doesn’t give up a lot of points once the defense is set, so look for Boston to heavily utilize Brown in transition to steal some offense.

Jaylen Brown will also likely see some possessions guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo. He did well against Antetokounmpo in the regular season and in last year’s playoffs. He won’t be the primary defender against the MVP candidate, but Boston won’t hesitate to put Brown on Antetokounmpo.

As for Sterling Brown, his role is simple: defend and make open shots. The Bucks don’t ask him to do anything more than that. He’s done well in that role since replacing Brogdon in the starting lineup, including against the Detroit Pistons in the first round. Brown is also a decent ballhandler and passer, but he’s not Malcolm Brogdon, so Milwaukee doesn’t ask him to carry the load Brogdon did as a secondary playmaker. With the other weapons in the starting lineup, as well as off the bench, look for Boston to tilt their defense away from Brown. As is often said, “It’s a make or miss league” and the Celtics will challenge Brown to miss more than he makes.

The other wings are known commodities. Khris Middleton is no longer the most underrated player in the NBA, as he was recognized as an All-Star. Middleton torched Boston in last year’s playoffs, as he shot approximately 100% from the field. He’s a confident and competent scorer. He can both knock down open jumpers, as well as create off the dribble. In addition, he’s gotten very good at taking smaller players to the post or mid-post area and scoring over them with a turnaround, or bullying them for layups. One positive for Boston, they seemed to figure some things out against Middleton in the regular season. He shot under 37%, turned it over 10 times and was a -23 in 99 minutes over three regular season games.

For the Celtics, Jayson Tatum needs to continue his strong play from the first round. He’ll need to be Boston’s second or third scoring option, and someone the Celtics can play through when Irving and Horford are off the floor. Tatum did well against the Bucks in the regular season, as he averaged 16.3 points and seven rebounds per game. He also got to the free throw line 12 times in the three games. While that’s nothing overly impressive, it was the most free throws any Celtic got against Milwaukee.

Advantage: Even. If Brogdon were healthy, this matchup would tip towards the Bucks. That’s how good Brogdon was this season with 50/40/90 shooting splits. But without him, Milwaukee is relying heavily on Sterling Brown. Middleton is the best player out of this group of four, but Tatum and Jaylen Brown are clearly the next two best. If Jaylen Brown can outplay Sterling Brown that would greatly aid Boston in pulling off the upset.

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Starting Bigs

Al Horford and Semi Ojeleye vs Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez

While Irving vs Bledsoe will go a long way towards deciding the series, the two key players in the series are Horford and Antetokounmpo. Horford is Boston’s best defender and the primary component to scuttling the Bucks defensive plans. There is an outside chance that Brad Stevens stays big and keeps Aron Baynes in the starting lineup, but Baynes would a starter in name only. Baynes would probably go to the bench fairly quickly. This is for a couple of reasons.

The first is Stevens probably doesn’t want to open games with Horford guarding Antetokounmpo. The main reason is to avoid foul trouble. In 106 minutes over the three regular season games against Boston, Antetokounmpo took 38 free throws. With his length, strength, quickness and improved ballhandling ability, Antetokounmpo is going to get to the line a lot. Stevens won’t want that to be at the expense of Horford. Expect him to save Horford as the Giannis defender for the end of the first half and the closing minutes of each game.

Starting Ojeleye (more on that in a minute) also has the benefit of forcing Lopez to guard Horford on the other end. Lopez is a terrific interior defender (he graded out as one of the better rim protectors in the NBA), but a far-lesser defender on the perimeter. When Boston had success against Milwaukee in the regular season, it was because Horford pulled Lopez away from the paint. This either got him open jumpers, or it opened up driving lanes for the Celtics. In the game that Horford missed against the Bucks, the Celtics were a mess both offensively and defensively. More than anything, the key number to takeaway is that Horford was a +23 in 69 minutes against Milwaukee.

As for Antetokounmpo, guarding him is a team effort. Horford will get the important minutes, but Stevens will almost assuredly unearth Ojeleye, given his relative success guarding Antetokounmpo. But Giannis is an MVP candidate for a reason. He uses his considerable gifts to get inside for baskets at will. He shot an absurd 76.9% at the rim, which was better than all but two season of Shaquille O’Neal’s Hall of Fame career. Antetokounmpo is still a reluctant jump shooter. But unlike someone like Ben Simmons, Antetokounmpo will take just enough jumpers to keep you honest. He’s also a terrific defender, excelling both on the ball and as a help defender. He’s become a top-notch rebounder and regularly uses his ability to rip and run to create one-man fastbreaks.

As noted in the link above, there is no one way to defend Antetokounmpo. Boston will run a host defenders at him. They’ll double and trap at times. The Celtics were remarkably connected as a defensive unit against the Pacers. They’ll need that to slow the Bucks superstar, while not letting his teammates carve them up.

One of those teammates that did plenty of carving up of defenses was Lopez. After years of extending his range with both the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers, Lopez essentially became a three-point specialist with Milwaukee. Of his 9.7 field goal attempts each game, 6.3 came from behind the arc. And it’s not just a gimmick, as Lopez shot 36.5% from downtown this season. On the defensive end of the floor, Lopez was one of the league’s best shot-blockers, as he tallied 2.2 blocks per game.

The Celtics will want to force Lopez into tough situations as a defender. Boston either wants him having to guard Horford around the perimeter, or to guard a player who can take Lopez off the dribble. Because of this, we may not see all that many minutes for Baynes or Daniel Theis in this series, and if we do, they’ll probably come when Lopez is on the bench.

Advantage: Milwaukee. As good as Horford is, and as many problems as he creates for the Bucks, Milwaukee still has the advantage here. Antetokounmpo is an MVP candidate and Lopez has become the premiere shot-blocking, shooting center in the NBA. Because of Horford, it’s not a complete mismatch, but this is a spot where the Bucks should come out ahead most games.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Reserves

Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier and Aron Baynes vs George Hill, Nikola Mirotic, Ersan Ilyasova, Pat Connaughton and Tony Snell

Working under the assumption that Stevens sticks with a nine-man rotation, and that Ojeleye either starts or sees starter’s minutes, the Celtics are likely to look fairly similar to the last month or so. Hayward has found an incredible rhythm coming off the bench. He hits the floor in attack-mode and has been getting in the paint regularly to make plays for himself or to find teammates for open shots. In many ways, Hayward’s minutes will be some of the most high-leverage minutes of this series. He’ll play both as a regular substitute and likely as part of Boston’s closing lineup. The Bucks don’t have many players who are great on-ball defenders, which means Hayward should have plenty of chances to create scoring opportunities.

Outside of one bad game against Indiana, Morris seems to have found his shot again. That’s important, as Boston will want to match him to Mirotic and Ilyasova, as well as to use him in smaller lineups with Horford up front. He’s also likely to see some minutes defending Antetokounmpo.

Rozier had some really nice moments for the Celtics in the first round against the Pacers. For the most part, he played within himself. He attacked the defense when it was there, but didn’t force the ball. He won’t be going head-to-head with Bledsoe as much this time around, but he’s going to have to outplay Hill, who has long been a thorn in Boston’s side. If Rozier remains aggressive, but focused, that’s a matchup the Celtics can gain an advantage from.

Baynes will still play, even if he doesn’t start. Stevens will simply remove Theis from the rotation and Baynes will pick up those 10-15 minutes or so. He, along with Morris, are the only two Celtics who will give a hard foul at the rim when necessary. If nothing else, Baynes will be in there to make sure Antetokounmpo has to earn it inside.

Milwaukee re-made their bench throughout the season with the acquisitions of Hill and Mirotic. The two veterans give Mike Budenholzer guys he can put in the lineup without any worry of the moment being too big for them. Hill’s numbers were pedestrian in two games with the Bucks against the Celtics this season, but he was a +33 in just 44 minutes. This continues a string of success against Boston for Hill. He’s got a knack for hitting big shots and making timely defensive plays.

Mirotic pairs with Ilyasova to give the Bucks a couple of bigs who can stretch the floor and keep the driving lanes open for Antetokounmpo and the guards and wings. The main thing for the Celtics will be to keep track of them at all times. Mirotic will pull shots almost as soon as he crosses halfcourt. Ilyasova doesn’t have that deep of range (he shoots it right at the arc), but he’s a terrific offensive rebounder, which is something Boston struggles with at times. Don’t be surprised to see Ilyasova steal some extra possessions for the Bucks throughout the series.

After three veterans, Milwaukee isn’t going all that deep. Both Connaughton and Snell see some minutes, but they are limited to basically spot-up shooting. Beyond staying close to them off the ball, neither player should be much of a worry for the Celtics on either end.

Advantage: Boston. This one is close, because of the trouble Hill and Mirotic have given the Celtics in the past. But Boston has Hayward looking like he could be the fourth-best player in the series. If he’s as good as he’s been lately, and Morris and Rozier play like they did against the Pacers, this will be a major advantage for the Celtics.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Coaching

In last season’s first round matchup, this was a complete mismatch. Despite the series going seven games, Stevens coached circles around Joe Prunty. It’s much closer this time around. Budenholzer has completely rebuilt the Bucks offensively and defensively. They play a fairly simple, five-out system on offense, but they execute it nearly flawlessly. On defense, Budenholzer has his players pressure the perimeter, while funneling things inside to Antetokounmpo and Lopez. There isn’t anything flashy with the way Milwaukee plays, they just do the simple things really well.

One thing to keep an eye on is Budenholzer struggled to make adjustments in the playoffs in his Atlanta days. Stevens will have some sort of wrinkle prepared for the Bucks that they aren’t expecting. This might be some zone. Maybe he goes to an unexpected player off the bench. And Stevens will adjust throughout the series. Budenholzer will have to react to that, unless his team’s execution is so perfect that they don’t need to. That was the case against Detroit, but it won’t be so easy this time around.

Advantage: Even. Budenholzer has his team ready to go. They earned homecourt by being the NBA’s best regular season team. Again, nothing flashy from the Bucks, but they do the simple things well. Stevens is going to have to go in his bag of tricks and he will. How that works and how Budenholzer reacts may be what decides the series.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: Celtics in six games. For this to come true for Boston, they need to win one of the first two in Milwaukee. The best hope is that the Bucks cruised so much in the first round, that the more-tested Celtics able to steal Game 1. After that, it’s about protecting homecourt and getting it over in six. If it goes seven games, the Bucks probably aren’t losing in Milwaukee. While most eyes will be focused on Antetokounmpo against Horford and Irving against Bledsoe, it will be the other guys who decide the series. And Boston’s other guys are just enough better to move the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals.