Series predictions — Which team wins in how many games? Who’s the series MVP? How do you see the series going?
Celtics in 5. The Celtics come out with an incredible and targeted defensive strategy that will focus on funneling shots to players like Jrue Holiday and Grayson Allen while conceding that Giannis Antetokounmpo will still sleepwalk his way to 20-10 somehow. By funneling shots to the right players (like Bruce Brown in the first round), they’ll be able to limit Milwaukee’s offensive upside. The defense will take care of the rest. Marcus Smart always has good games against Milwaukee, so he’s the easy pick here. However, I think Al Horford will really be the key as the primary player to matchup against Giannis with his size and strength. The Bucks win Game 3 at home, but then the Celtics go up 3-1 and then close it out at the Garden. (edited)
Celtics in 6. The Khris Middleton news is truly huge. If he were healthy, I would have said Bucks in 7. If he weren’t himself, I would have said Celtics in 7. If he does end up missing the whole series, which it seems like he will, advantage Boston. The Celtics are playing as well as anyone right now and have the personnel to stymie the Giannis and Co. Don’t sleep on Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton, but the Celtics are the more complete and versatile team with Middleton sidelined. They split games 1 and 2, split games 3 and 4, then the Celtics win two in a row to seal it. It’s not often you get a chance to take down the defending champs, and the Celtics have the blueprint in place to do so. Jayson Tatum continues his torrid stretch and is the MVP. (edited)
Celtics in 6. With the news about Jaylen Brown looking a little murky, I’m going to be much more cautious in my optimism than I was when I picked Boston in 5 against Brooklyn. Missing Middleton will hurt bad for Milwaukee, but Giannis is a two-way force and won’t go down without a fight. My MVP is the most obvious pick, Jayson Tatum. Tatum was other-worldly in games 3 and 4, and I think he carries that momentum into the semifinals, willing the Celtics to their third ECF with him on the team.
Celtics in 5. I would have picked Celtics in 7 with a healthy Khris Middleton on the other side. A fully healthy Boston vs Milwaukee series is where having homecourt for Game 7 would have mattered. Without Middleton, I don’t know how the Bucks generate enough offense to score regularly on the Celtics. I see a hard-fought series with lots of 95-90 types of games, but Boston comes out on top and moves to the Eastern Conference Finals. Despite the Celtics winning, my MVP pick is Giannis Antetokounmpo. I think he’ll have one of those all-time individual series, but without enough help to get the Bucks over the top.
Celtics in 6. This could easily go seven and could just as easily be over in five. But the Celtics have shown that they have the defensive chops to deal with any level of superstar. Khris Middleton’s absence obviously plays a huge factor in this, but that’s just the way the cards fell. Jayson Tatum is on fire, Ime Udoka is coaching the best basketball of his life, and the rest of the Celtics all seem pumped up and ready to go. The only reason I have it over in six is to show Giannis some respect. But realistically speaking, the Celtics could close this out sooner.
Celtics in 6. Expect the series to be deadlocked at 2-2, then the homecourt advantage that the Celtics secured by finishing second in the East will come into play. Boston will win Game 5 on the Garden parquet, then take Game 6 at Milwaukee to close yet another series on the road.
MVP Jayson Tatum. Prior to the Nets series, we predicted that Tatum was ready to become KD 2.0. He did not disappoint. His performance versus Brooklyn made the case that he’s indeed a top-5 NBA talent. If Boston eliminates Milwaukee, it will be Tatum who leads the way. And the buzz will grow that much louder.
I’m very tempted to take Celtics in five with Middleton out, but Giannis hasn’t lost a playoff series in two years, so I’ll go Boston in seven. The best player in the series will be Giannis, but we’ll give Jayson Tatum the MVP if his team wins. He’ll need to be legitimately great for them to do so. Al Horford and the Williams brothers will have to have great series defensively as well. Don’t be surprised if they do.
The Celtics proved me foolish for thinking it would take them six whole games to put away the Brooklyn Nets, so how about we see if they do it again? I’m taking the Celtics in six games.
The Middleton injury pushed me much closer to saying five, but I just have a hard time imagining the defending champs going down in a gentleman’s sweep. This season, the Nets never quite performed at the level of their reputation, but the Bucks were a very good team all season long while dealing with injury troubles of their own. Even without Middleton, they’re a much deeper roster than Brooklyn (Brook Lopez ramping back up to starter’s minutes is sneakily significant for them) and they’re anchored by one of the few players in basketball with a case for being more terrifying than Kevin Durant. With Middleton absent, the Celtics should be comfortably favored, but the Bucks are still going to put up a fight.
As for the MVP, I’ll again set aside the obvious Jayson Tatum pick and go with Al Horford. The Celtics’ elder statesman has been crucial to the team’s past successes against Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he’s playing his best basketball of the year at exactly the right time as the Celtics ask him to step into the arena against the Greek Freak once again. Giannis is inevitably going to get his numbers, but if Horford and the Boston defense can hold him to merely “great,” as opposed to the 50-point colossus that put away the Phoenix Suns in last year’s Finals, they should be in excellent position to win this series.
I’m at the point now where I genuinely think that the Boston Celtics can win the title. And I’ve thought that there was at least a chance for a while, but with every passing game, I feel it solidify more and more as a valid, true possibility. They’re prepared defensively for every single set the opponent prepares for; Boston’s supporting cast beyond Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown is prepared and talented enough to either ramp up their defense or move the ball efficiently to find a great — not good — shot, or both, when the Jays get honed in on by the opponent. They’re ready, not just for Giannis and the Bucks, but for anyone.
I’ve seen this team fold. It happened up until the turn of the new year. But this team isn’t the same one that was losing three or four in a row to lesser competition across the league. They did to Kevin Durant what no other team has done, and while I think certain guys can get theirs on any given night against them — expect Giannis to average 30-37 per night, especially without Middleton to bear his typical scoring burden — I know for a fact that Boston can beat any team left in the field. I’d still put my money on Phoenix if Booker is healthy, but I’d put my money on Boston to meet them there, if not beat them.
That being said: Celtics in 6 in this one. I like their chances. Again, I cringe to say it, but I say it anyway. What’s happened to me?
Celtics in 7 because Giannis is unreal, but in the end I think the Celtics have the better team top-to-bottom. I could see both teams stealing games on the road. I could see random guys on the Bucks giving us fits. I could see the Celtics doing everything else right, but missing a bunch of shots to lose the game. I could see the Celtics making a lot of mistakes but hitting a high volume of shots and winning. I’d like for it to be a short series, but I’m gearing up for a long, hard fought series that goes the distance.