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#2 Celtics vs #3 Bucks - Second Round Playoff Series Preview

For the third time in five years, Boston and Milwaukee meet in the NBA Playoffs

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

The Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks will meet in the second round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs in an Eastern Conference series. This is the third time in the last five years these two have met in the postseason. The Celtics beat the Bucks in the first round in 2018, while Milwaukee topped Boston in the second round in 2019. The series schedule is as follows:

· Game 1 – Sunday 5/1 at Boston – 1:00 PM ET - ABC

· Game 2 – Tuesday 5/3 at Boston – TBD - TNT

· Game 3 – Saturday 5/7 at Milwaukee – TBD - ABC

· Game 4 – Monday 5/9 at Milwaukee – TBD - TNT

· Game 5* – Wednesday 5/11 at Boston – TNT - *if necessary

· Game 6* – Friday 5/13 at Milwaukee – ESPN - *if necessary

· Game 7* – Sunday 5/15 at Boston – TBD - *if necessary

During the regular season the teams split their four meetings:

· Boston 122 – Milwaukee 113

· Boston 117 – Milwaukee 103

· Milwaukee 117 – Boston 113

· Milwaukee 127 – Boston 121

In the first matchup in mid-November, the Bucks were without Giannis Antetokounmpo, while the Celtics played without Jaylen Brown. Dennis Schroder had one of the best games of his short Boston tenure with 38 points.

In the second matchup a month later, Jayson Tatum scored 42 points, while Grant Williams added 17 off the bench in a Boston win. The Celtics held Antetokounmpo relatively in check, as he scored just 20 points. Khris Middleton was also a relative non-factor in a game that might most-resemble what this series could look like.

A couple of weeks later the teams met for a Christmas Day matchup. The Celtics blew a 12-point lead with five minutes to play as Antetokounmpo dominated in a Bucks rally. Milwaukee’s star scored 29 of his game-high 36 points in the second half. Boston was led by 25 points apiece from Brown and Tatum, while Payton Pritchard added 16 off the Celtics bench.

The final matchup saw Boston sit Jayson Tatum and Al Horford, while Robert Williams was out with a torn meniscus. Milwaukee finished the game on a 9-0 run to win behind 29 points apiece from Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday. Brown put up a triple-double for Boston, who saw several others step up with Tatum and Horford sitting.

Health Outlook

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Fluharty-Pool/Getty Images

The Celtics enter this series healthy, with a catch. The team is expecting Jaylen Brown to be full-go, but Brown is dealing with hamstring tightness. He was injured late in Game 4, as Boston swept the Brooklyn Nets. Both Brown and Ime Udoka have said they expect Brown to play, but that the injury could impact him throughout the series.

Robert Williams is cleared for full minutes and may return back to the starting lineup. That decision lies solely with Udoka, but Williams will play a major role in this series either way.

On the Bucks side, they’ll be without Khris Middleton. This is a major blow for Milwaukee, as Middleton is their best offensive creator (non-Giannis bulldozer division). His rep as a “Celtics killer” has been a bit overstated. When Middleton has a big game against Boston, it tends to be a BIG game, which enhances that rep, even if his overall numbers against the Celtics aren’t tremendous. Rep or not, Middleton’s absence is going to impact this series greatly.

Without Middleton, the Bucks lose on offense, but they also lose a wing defender with size. That’s going throw things into flux a bit on that end of the floor.

It’s uncertain what George Hill’s status will be for the series. He’s missed considerable time this season, including the entire first round with a neck injury. Hill was upgraded to questionable by the end of the first round, but it’s unclear how close he actually is to returning.

Starting Guards

Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown vs Jrue Holiday and Wesley Matthews/Grayson Allen

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

This is where things get a little weird, because it’s unclear who will actually start next to Jrue Holiday in Milwaukee’s backcourt. In the Bucks victory over the Chicago Bulls in the first round, it was Wesley Matthews, because Mike Budenholzer went with a jumbo-sized frontcourt. For most of the regular season, when someone was out of the lineup, the Bucks started Grayson Allen.

Either way, this is a spot where the Celtics should be able to make some headway. Holiday is a wonderful defender, but he can only guard one player. It’s highly likely he’ll draw either Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum. Matthews, who will start on the wing, will probably take the other player.

When Boston has the ball, they need to focus on getting into the paint. Milwaukee offers paint touches to ballhandlers, because of the way they guard pick-and-roll actions. It’s going to be up to Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown to be aggressive in attacking that defense.

Brown has become a good midrange pullup shooter, and that shot is there against the Bucks in drop coverage. Smart tends to eschew the pullup for the floater or a straight rim attack. With Milwaukee’s size and length in the paint, Smart may want to reconsider that approach. He should be willing to take the 10–20-foot pullup jumper if it’s there.

In addition, it’s going to be hard for Smart, or Jayson Tatum, to get into the paint for those over-the-top lobs they love to throw to Rob Williams, Al Horford and Daniel Theis. The Bucks simply don’t allow for that, especially when Brook Lopez is in the game. Milwaukee forces the passers to be scorers, or to look to kick the ball out.

One last thing when the Celtics have the ball: Boston has to be aware of Holiday helping at the nail (at the free throw line in the middle of the key). Brown and Tatum both love to go to spin dribbles there and no player in the NBA is better at being there for strips and deflections than Holiday is. Finding him before starting a dribble move is paramount.

When the Bucks have the ball, Holiday’s offensive load is massive without Khris Middleton. He has to be Milwaukee primary on-ball creator. He can do that, but upping his offensive responsibility, while expecting All-Defense level play on the other end is a big ask.

Unlike against Chicago, Holiday isn’t going to have anyone he can bully with back-to-the-basket plays either. While the Bulls always had an opposing guard on the floor that Holiday could overpower, the Celtics will rarely give the Bucks that sort of look. That removes some of the offensive sets and flow where Holiday makes something happening from the mid-post area. Boston also won’t send help, so Holiday won’t be able to find the kickout passes to the shooters like he did in the first round.

If Allen is on the floor, he needs to take advantage of the Celtics aggressive defensive tendencies. Whether that’s driving closeouts, drawing fouls or getting the ball moving as Boston switches and scrambles, Allen has to show up. He’s better off the dribble than most think, and he’s a good secondary or tertiary playmaker.

If Matthews is out there on offense, he’s a standstill shooter. But he’s a good one. Matthews excels in lifting to get above the break for kickouts off drives. He’s also great at finding his spot when Milwaukee plays in transition. Keeping track of Matthews is a key for Boston’s defense.

Advantage: Boston. Jrue Holiday is really good, but Marcus Smart is playing the best basketball of his career. That brings that matchup closer than it may have been in years past. The difference is Jaylen Brown vs Wesley Matthews or Grayson Allen. If the Celtics are going to win, and possibly somewhat comfortably, Brown has to win that matchup by a wide margin. And he’s perfectly capable of it.

Starting Forwards

Jayson Tatum and Al Horford vs Giannis Antetokounmpo and Wesley Matthews/Bobby Portis

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

Let’s get this out of the way first: Giannis Antetokounmpo is without a doubt the best player in this series. He may be the best player in the entire NBA.

That said…Jayson Tatum isn’t miles behind like some may have once thought. Especially not after he largely dominated his first-round matchup with Kevin Durant.

With that out of the way, it’s important to recognize that these two may not guard each other all that often. Milwaukee doesn’t task Antetokounmpo with guarding the best opposing wing, except in key moments. On the other end, Tatum isn’t the best matchup Boston has for Antetokounmpo either.

This matchup, more than any, is where Al Horford’s value to the Celtics should shine brightest. For years, the book has been to layoff Antetokounmpo in the halfcourt and hope he shoots. The challenge for most teams is that he’ll only occasionally settle for jumpers. Instead, Antetokounmpo uses that space to create a head of steam as he drives.

This is where Horford’s size comes into play. You have to meet Antetokounmpo in the paint with size. Few players can move their feet, while matching Antetokounmpo’s size like Horford can. And Horford does that with players like Robert Williams or Daniel Theis lurking as help defenders, or Marcus Smart and Grant Williams sliding in to take charges when Antetokounmpo spins.

Much like the backcourt matchup, Antetokounmpo vs Horford is an advantage for the Bucks. But the difference between Tatum and whoever he matches up with is very wide.

Tatum is the second-best player in this series, but he’s perfectly capable of being the best player. Like Brown, Tatum needs to win his matchups by a wide margin. Yes, he’ll draw Antetokounmpo in some scenarios, mostly end-game ones, but against any other Buck, he should be able to score. And when Milwaukee sends help. Tatum will dime up shooters and cutters.

If Milwaukee goes big, look for Tatum to attack regularly off the bounce. If Matthews is tasked with guarding Tatum, he’ll work in the mid-post area, similarly to how he did against Bruce Brown in the first round. Or he’ll simply catch and shooter over the smaller defender.

Also, look for less Tatum-Brown pick-and-roll actions, as the Bucks will probably just switch those. Instead, look for Tatum to work more with Marcus Smart to pick up whoever is guarding Smart on the switches. And, expect a heavy dose of Tatum working the screen game with whichever big Brook Lopez is guarding. If the Bucks stick with their preferred drop coverage against those looks, Tatum will walk into pullup jumper after pullup jumper until the defensive changes tactics or personnel.

When Milwaukee has the ball, Matthews or Portis will live at the arc, with the latter occasionally diving in on cuts as Antetokounmpo or Jrue Holiday drive. Boston will sag off and dare Antetokounmpo to shoot or to drive, while setting a wall of big bodies and long limbs to protect against the basket.

Also, be prepared for plenty of free throws. Not only will Antetokounmpo force it, but the Celtics will also happily give a foul to prevent a layup or dunk. And Boston’s smalls, primarily Marcus Smart, Derrick White and Grant Williams, will attempt to take many, many charges throughout this series. Even if they only have marginal success, it will be worth it.

Antetokounmpo is the primary concern of the Bucks starting forwards, but we don’t want to minimize Portis or Matthews either. We covered Matthews’ game in the guard section, and Portis is really a bigger version of Matthews at this point. Somewhere between a third and half of Portis’ shots will come from behind the arc. And the rest come in the paint or at the rim, with the occasional mid-ranger worked in.

Like in the backcourt, this is where Middleton’s versatility will be missed. He’d force Tatum or Brown to have to guard him. Now, Boston can more aggressively send spot-help. They won’t double Antetokounmpo on the catch on every trip, but they’ll do it sometimes, hoping their backside rotations are on-point to keep Portis or Matthews from getting wide-open looks.

Advantage: Boston. If Khris Middleton were playing, this would have been advantage Bucks. As it stands, Jayson Tatum isn’t all that far off Giannis Antetokounmpo in terms of what they’ll produce in this series on both ends. The difference is that Al Horford is better than either Bobby Portis or Wesley Matthews. One key to that? Horford has to make his open three-pointers. He was down at 33.6% from behind the arc for the regular season. But since 2022 started, Horford has hit 37.5% from deep, and he knocked down 9-of-15 triples in the first round.

Starting Center

Robert Williams vs Brook Lopez

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

This is assuming Ime Udoka either returns to Robert Williams in the starting group for Game 1 or at some point in the series. Assuming Williams has his wind back, and his timing/rhythm is good, he’ll likely get his starting role back.

If so, this gives Boston a big athletic boost. Williams will rarely start possessions guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he’ll constantly be lurking as a help defender. If the rest of the Celtics can occupy Antetokounmpo as he drives, look for Williams to be the one who comes in to bother the shot as it goes up.

On offense, Williams will need to be strong as a screener. The Bucks prefer to drop Brook Lopez back in coverages. If their guards and wings can fight over the screens, it takes away the ballhandlers ability to get into the paint or to get to their pullup. Williams will have to fight his natural urge to slip screens for lobs, because Milwaukee simply won’t be pressed up that high to allow it anyway.

On the rare occasions when Milwaukee allows an offensive rebound (the Bucks are one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA), Williams will probably be involved. And he’ll have to finish those rare second chances.

On the other end of the floor, Lopez is going to have to be an offensive weapon for the Bucks to win. He’s a good three-point shooter, so Williams, or Daniel Theis, won’t be able to wander too far from him. And most of the other Celtics simply don’t have the size to bother Lopez’s shot in rotations.

The other thing to watch with Khris Middleton out, is Milwaukee went to a lot of straight post-up plays for Lopez. Defending the post has been a challenge for Williams at times, because he’ll bite on fakes. If Antetokounmpo is on the bench, or needs a possession to breathe, look for the Bucks to get Lopez in the post for scoring opportunities.

Advantage: Milwaukee. This is close, but Brook Lopez’s ability on both ends of the floor is so key for the Bucks. If the Celtics are able to pick on Lopez in drop coverage, that’s less about the center matchup than a schematic thing. It’s going to be really key for Robert Williams or Daniel Theis to play solidly and avoid picking up fouls, especially when Lopez is in the post. And they can’t get overly occupied with helping on Giannis Antetokounmpo drives that they drift too far off Lopez at the arc either.

Reserves

Derrick White, Grant Williams, Payton Pritchard and Daniel Theis vs Bobby Portis/Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton, Jevon Carter and Serge Ibaka

Boston Celtics v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

Both Boston and Milwaukee have cut down to eight or nine-man rotations. Essentially, the filler minutes that you can get away with in the regular season are gone. Both Ime Udoka and Mike Budenholzer are running with the guys they can trust.

The Celtics will run with Derrick White playing as the primary backup wing, Grant Williams as the primary backup big and Payton Pritchard will get 10-15 minutes behind Marcus Smart. Because Robert Williams is still working his way back from injury, and he’s likely to pick up some fouls, expect Daniel Theis to get at least 8-10 minutes of run too.

Whoever doesn’t start for the Bucks out of Bobby Portis and Grayson Allen, will play a lot off the bench. Pat Connaughton will get his standard 20-25 minutes too. And Jevon Carter will play 10-15 minutes behind Jrue Holiday, unless George Hill is ready, then he’ll pick up some of that time too. If any of the Bucks three bigs (Portis, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez) gets into foul trouble, Serge Ibaka will see some minutes.

With playing time relatively even, it becomes about production from the bench. Portis will probably score the most, while Allen and Connaughton are capable of big shooting games. White is the best defender of the group, with Williams not far behind. Those matchups are likely to cancel each other out.

The key for the Celtics will be for Pritchard to outplay either Carter or Hill. And he’s got a weapon that should be huge in this series: the pullup jumper. Pritchard is arguably Boston’s best pullup shooter not named Jayson Tatum. Jaylen Brown is much-improved, but Pritchard’s pullup is money.

In years past, the Celtics got a ton of mileage out of attacking Lopez in drop coverage with Kemba Walker drilling midrange pullup jumpers. Look for that to get broken back out, but with Pritchard playing the Walker role. This is a series where he could have several big scoring games, despite playing somewhat minimal minutes.

Advantage: Even. Grant Williams and Bobby Portis both offer good defense and timely outside shooting. If Derrick White was making shots, it would tip Boston’s way. But White has shot just 40.9% with the Celtics, and 30.6% from three. In the first round, that dipped down to 34.8% and 9.1% from behind the arc. White’s defense and playmaking are keys for the Celtics, but Payton Pritchard may be the more logical choice for big backup guard minutes in this series. As for Allen and Connaughton, the Celtics have to stay attached and run them off the arc. That’s the goal to keep them in check.

Coaching

Ime Udoka vs Mike Budenholzer

Boston Celtics v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

The book on Mike Budenholzer used to be that that once you figured out how to attack his defense and slow his offense, the series was over. He was known as the coach who was most reluctant to adjust his schemes or personnel.

That’s gone now. Budenholzer did a wonderful job throughout last season’s title run of changing when necessary. No, he doesn’t have a ton of new wrinkles planned to start a series or anything, but Budenholzer is far less rigid about adapting and changing things up than he used to be.

Ime Udoka had a great baptism under fire in the first round. His defensive schemes against Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving worked great. Offensively, Udoka went to some stuff Boston hadn’t done a lot of, like small-small pick-and-roll plays and some inverse spacing stuff with the wings working from the post. He also tweaked some lineups and pushed minutes for his main guys.

Advantage: Milwaukee. You can’t pick against a championship level coach when the other guy has only won one series. But this also isn’t some sort of giant mismatch either. The key is for Ime Udoka to have something prepared for Giannis Antetokounmpo that he hasn’t seen before. That’s especially true with Khris Middleton out. From there, it’s about forcing the Bucks to adjust from their base schemes. And without Middleton, Budenholzer is going to have to get really creative to figure out what to go to, if the Celtics force them away from their preferred stuff.

Prediction

Celtics in five games.

In the first round, this space really, really wanted to pick Boston to beat Brooklyn in five games, but got scared off by the greatness of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

That isn’t going to happen again.

If Khris Middleton was playing, the pick would have been Celtics in seven. Homecourt advantage matters that much. But after watching Boston dismantle a Brooklyn offense with more firepower than Milwaukee has, the confidence is flowing towards the Celtics.

Giannis Antetokounmpo may still finish as the series MVP. He could average something like a 40/15/7 line, but where is the rest of the help coming from? That’s where the Celtics get you. One guy isn’t enough, as the Nets found out. And if that one guy can be at least semi-contained, then it’s really not enough.

Boston is uniquely equipped to make life hard on Antetokounmpo, because they have defenders with size that can move their feet. And their wings and guards are willing to step in and take a hit too. It’s also imperative that the Celtics win any non-Antetokounmpo minutes. There aren’t going to be many of them, but winning them will be huge from game to game.

The Celtics also have to find ways to pick on the Bucks defense. Whether that’s against the scheme (Brook Lopez in drop coverage) or against weaker defenders like Grayson Allen or Pat Connaughton, Boston has to win those battles decisively.

This one may play out a lot like the Nets series. Close games, battles until the end, but more rock fights than shootouts. But the Celtics have more depth, and better matchups for and against the Bucks. That’ll be the difference as Boston gets to the Eastern Conference Finals.