We all love the playoffs. It’s where the world's best players raise their level to unbelievable heights, and moments of magic occur in every game. However, basketball is a team sport and while the superstars and stars determine the outcome of games, it is the team’s role players that can often swing a series. An 82-game investment into the team's development is either going to pay dividends or leave you scratching your head about what comes next, both of which come with their own types of excitement.
For the Boston Celtics and their fans, the 82-game investment has provided us all with a lot of twists and turns from osing close games to worries of infighting and then the glow-up into becoming one of the best teams the NBA has to offer. Fairytale-esque, wouldn’t you say?
That fairytale became more surreal when the Celtics dispatched the Brooklyn Nets in a four-game sweep, with Jayson Tatum, not Kevin Durant, clearly looking like the best player on the floor, and Ime Udoka easily outcoaching his counterpart, Steve Nash. Still, no matter which way you slice it, that series against the Nets was a superstar's series, role players had their part to play. but both rosters were going to live or die by their best player's performances.
The second round doesn’t project to unfold in the same way. Sure, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Tatum are bonafide superstars in their own right, and Jaylen Brown is certainly on the rise too, but Milwaukee is a vastly deeper team than the Nets, and that makes it increasingly difficult for star power to shine as bright.
Instead, we’re going to see role player battles across multiple positions, and the team that wins the majority of those subplots will likely be the one who comes out victorious. You see, against Brooklyn, the aim was to stop Durant and let everybody else beat you, but when you’re facing the Bucks, you invert the plan: stop everybody else and make Giannis do it on his own.
On the perimeter
If you focus on stopping the unstoppable, you allow all the other moving parts to flourish. Instead, limiting kick-out opportunities, boxing out on the glass, and staying home on shooters is the best path to success. Giannis can’t score enough points to beat you on his own, and without running mate Khris Middleton for the entirety of the series, Boston needs to make him try.
Jrue Holiday is going to be a significant factor for the Bucks and will provide stern perimeter defense. However, we can be confident in Marcus Smart matching his production from a pound-for-pound perspective. But looking beyond Giannis and Holiday, we start to see a fuller picture. It’s clear the Bucks are designed to get the best out of their superstar, as their roster is littered with 3-and-D role players on the wings. Wesley Matthews, Pat Connaughton, and Grayson Allen are all valuable offensive pieces when given the opportunity, but none of them project to be serious three-level scorers who can dominate their matchup defensively.
The more I think about it, the more I think this series turns on whether or not the Cs hit their open threes. If they are shooting a bit above average, I think it could be a sweep. If they are cold, Milwaukee could easily win. Bucks beg you to take 3s. pic.twitter.com/1wmFlz1qQ2— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) April 29, 2022
Flip the view over to Boston for a second, and Derrick White, Grant Williams, and Payton Pritchard look far more complete as two-way threats. Sure, Milwaukee’s secondary perimeter trio are probably better offensive weapons in a vacuum, but they’re no match for the defensive intensity of the Celtics' perimeter role players. And as we saw against Brooklyn, defensive disruptiveness is what kills the flow of the game. Pritchard is the weak link out of the two perimeter trios, but his limitless range and improved ability to create space off the dribble do go some way to limiting the defensive drop off in spot minutes.
Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis are primarily perimeter-based big men, which is a necessity to ensure Giannis has the necessary driving lanes. Unfortunately, the Celtics’ bigs are exceptional at switching up high and limiting shooting opportunities. Al Horford, Robert Williams, and Daniel Theis are all reliable options, either in drop or on the perimeter.
With so much versatility in the big man department, the Celtics will have no issues adapting to whatever brand of basketball Mike Budenholzer decides to roll with, and if we want to class Grant Williams as a big for this exercise, that further strengthens the Celtics in that area of the floor.
Of course, Serge Ibaka could be a swing factor should the Bucks decide to lean into physicality, as he’s often given the Celtics problems, and always finds a way to become an effective contributor within the flow of the game.
Grant Williams emphasizes how good the #Celtics’ spacing needs to be to against a #Bucks team that sells out to protect the paint. He tells me Milwaukee will be showing 4 guys inside even if Payton Pritchard is driving.— Bobby Manning (@RealBobManning) April 30, 2022
Unlike the Nets, Milwaukee does boast some legitimate size, and should they choose to, can become an interior-based team at the drop of a hat — and that’s where the problems could start for the Celtics. For all length and athleticism within the Celtics roster, they’re not a bruising team in terms of their big men, rather, they like to deter teams from pressuring the rim.
But, if Boston can continue to be physical on the perimeter, which is essentially the entry to any post-play, they should be able to ease some of the battles their big men are going to encounter.
On the other side of the court, the Celtics have a legitimate advantage from their double-big lineup. Robert Williams’ lob threat, Al Horford’s pick-and-pop game, and Daniel Theis as a short-roll scorer will ensure the Bucks’ defense can’t hone in on any one specific aspect of the team's halfcourt play. Furthermore, all three of the Celtics’ big man rotations are high-level screeners, which should help generate shooting pockets on the wings or around the slot, which the Bucks are usually quite comfortable giving up.
Going against the grain
Ime Udoka and Brad Stevens have both walked the walk when it comes to going in the opposite direction of modern-day basketball. As teams have embraced being smaller with more skill, the Celtics have opted for size, strength, and defensive versatility. And now it’s time for them to continue down their individualistic path. So, where teams will try to stop Giannis, Boston should try to force his hand and shut down everybody else.
But to do that, the role players need to stand up and be counted, because everyone will be expecting Giannis and Tatum to take turns headlining the offense while their teammates offer outlets. Such a single-minded brand of offense isn’t how the Celtics operate, nor do they afford any single player too much additional attention, which means this series will very much come down to each team’s role players. Something tells me we’re going to see some big performances from some unlikely names, and who knows, maybe some future contract values increase as a result - yes, I’m looking at you, Grant Williams.