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Bucks-Celtics 2022 Eastern Conference Finals: who ya got?

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Let’s fast forward.

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Congratulations, Milwaukee. Bask in your glory. That was a great run. We hope you enjoyed your parade, but the rest of the league is already scheming on how to take your down. LFG.

To beat the Bucks is to make shots. That may sound self-evident in a game where making shots is the entire point, but against Milwaukee, games can often devolve into a glorified three-point contest. Consider the results from this year’s regular season series that the Celtics won 2-1.

Celtics vs. Bucks 2020-2021

Games Celtics Threes Celtics Percentage Bucks Threes Bucks Percentage
Games Celtics Threes Celtics Percentage Bucks Threes Bucks Percentage
Bucks 121 - Celtics 122 18-for-40 45% 14-for-35 40%
Celtics 119 - Bucks 120 19-for-47 40.40% 17-for-37 45.90%
Celtics 122 - Bucks 114 22-for-47 46.80% 19-for-47 40.40%
Season 13.6-for-37.4 37.40% 14.4-for-37.1 38.90%

Since Mike Budenholzer took over Milwaukee, he’s built their entire philosophy on both sides of the ball around the 3: the Bucks are going to shoot a ton, give up a ton, and bet that by the buzzer, they’ll make more than you do. In their three meetings, both teams shot the lights out, but that wasn’t exactly the Celtics’ game plan. Against the Bucks, Boston played into Milwaukee’s hands, but they could be shifting gears as well. Before the trade deadline, the Celtics averaged 33.8 3FGA’s per game; after March 25th, that increased dramatically to 40.3.

The importance of Boston’s shift in offensive strategy is significant. Adding Evan Fournier (and potentially retaining him this summer) along with the continued comfortability of Aaron Nesmith in the pro game should further Boston’s commitment behind the three point line.

Now, Boston embracing the arc doesn’t exactly translate to “we got you now and we’re going to beat you at your own game, Buckos.” It does, however, hint to a more definitive shift to spacing and sharing the ball. After the trade deadline, the Celtics shot 24.2 catch-and-shoot threes. In the fourty-four games before, that number was just 19.5. In a way, they are mimicking the Eastern Conference champs: put the ball in your superstars’ hands and let them create easy shots for the role players.

Of course, the Celtics don’t have Giannis Antetokounmpo. They haven’t even faced this version of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Most of the league hasn’t either. Only Brooklyn, Atlanta, and Phoenix have witnessed the full force of the superstar in full bloom. The two-time MVP transformed his game so quickly over the last few weeks of the playoffs on his way to a Finals MVP. He’s cut out some of the threes and mid-range out of his shot diet and instead, turned into an efficient machine looking to attack the rim at any opportunity.

Boston Celtics v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Against the Celtics last regular season, Giannis was human, averaging 21 points and 5 assists. Boston utilized a wide variety of size from Marcus Smart to Grant Williams to Daniel Theis to play under him rather than meet him tips of his length. Now, they’ll add Al Horford, veteran Antetokounmpo stopper, to the mix.

At 35 years old, nobody is expecting Horford to play like prime Atlanta Horford or even prime Celtics Horford from three years ago. However, he’s still capable of a solid twenty minutes matched up against even the best big men in the game. As scary as Antetokounmpo looked in The Finals, Boston has shown an ability to slow him down.

Ultimately, the pressure point that could be the difference maker in a Celtics-Bucks series is at point guard. In the postseason, Jrue Holiday was as advertised. He’s the best on-ball PG defender in the league (sorry, Marcus) and he single handedly changed the complexion of The Finals with his work on Chris Paul. And by limiting the head of the snake, that had a trickle down effect on Deandre Ayton and the Suns’ role players after Milwaukee rolled off four straight wins.

You can make the argument that the Celtics don’t even have a dynamic point guard to shut down right now. Without Kemba Walker (or Kyrie Irving or Isaiah Thomas), Holiday’s defense is moot. However, unless something dramatic happens over the next couple of weeks, Smart will be handling the starting point duties for the Celtics and proved last season that he’s capable of the job:

Smart enters his eighth season with the Celtics and maybe more importantly, a contract year. For most of his career, Smart has been considered as more of a "break glass in emergency" (pun intended) option as a lead guard in favor of his All-Star teammates. That’s suited his “sixth starter” status under the all loving, all trusting Brad Stevens. Playing for Ime Udoka—who referred to him as a “foundational piece”—he won’t necessarily be asked to do more, but be more controlled and consistent, a tweak that Smart already made in his approach last year.

Smart with this roster reminds me of Dennis Johnson flanked by the greatest front court of all time with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. DJ wasn’t necessarily a dynamic playmaker on the back nine of his prime or a prolific scorer like Tiny Archibald before him. Instead, he was a solid contributor who defended his position well and made big plays when they needed it. Obviously, let’s not skip steps and start assuming that Tatum and Brown could propel the Celtics to an 80’s-like run, but I think it’s fair to slot Smart in as a strong piece next to them if that happens.

Now, this may all be the optimistic musings of a fan just itching for 2021-2022 to start. Hope springs eternal before the draft, free agency, and training camp and now there’s this Bradley Beal business in the air already. The reality is that as disappointing as last season was, there were enough positives to think that when healthy and whole, Boston could have competed with anybody in the Eastern Conference, including the now world champion Bucks.