The Celtics host the Milwaukee Bucks for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. This is the 3rd time in the 4 years that the Celtics and Bucks meet in the second round of the playoffs. The Celtics won in 7 games in 2018 in a series where the home team won every game. The Bucks won the series in 2019 in 5 games. The teams met 4 times in the regular season with each team winning their 2 games at home. None of the games are a prediction for what this series could be like since none of those games featured both teams at full strength. In all but the final game, the Celtics were playing Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson big minutes.
The Celtics won the first game 122-113 in overtime at Boston on November 12. The Celtics were without Jaylen Brown while the Bucks were without Giannis, Middleton and Holiday. The Celtics also won 117-103 on December 12, also in Boston. The Bucks were without Brook Lopez and Wesley Matthews while the Celtics were missing Josh Richardson. The Bucks won the Christmas Day game 117-113 in Milwaukee. Bucks were missing Lopez while the Celtics were missing Richardson, Grant Williams, Al Horford, and Richardson. The Bucks won the final game in Milwaukee 127-121. They Bucks were without Grayson Allen while the Celtics were missing Tatum, Horford and Robert Williams.
The Celtics have the longest active playoff streak at 8 years straight while the Bucks are tied with the Jazz for the second longest active playoff streak at 6 years straight. This is the 8th time in NBA history that the Celtics and Bucks are meeting in the playoffs. The Celtics have won 5 of the previous 7 meetings. The Bucks are the current reigning NBA champions and so they come into this game with the majority of their players having Finals experience. However, repeating as champions isn’t very easy.
The Celtics come into this series with a clean injury list. Although no players are listed, they do have some injury concerns. Jaylen Brown felt tightness in his hamstring in Game 4 against the but is expected to play in this game. Robert Williams returned from a torn meniscus in Game 3 of the first round and hasn’t had any setbacks and should be good to go in this game. Al Horford was wearing a wrap on his thumb in practice but it isn’t expected to affect his availability to play in this game. The Celtics will likely be monitoring all 3 players to be sure there are no issues with their health in this game.
The Bucks were hit with a big setback when Khris Middleton left Game 2 against the Bulls with a knee injury. It has been diagnosed as a Grade 2 MCL sprain. He was originally expected to be re-evaluated after 2 weeks but recent reports came out that he may miss the entire series. He is definitely out for this game regardless. George Hill missed the first round series against the Bulls with an abdominal strain and will miss this game as well.
The Celtics started Daniel Theis at center while Robert Williams was out with the MCL injury. Theis also continued to start with Robert Williams coming off the bench in Games 3 and 4 after Williams returned to play limited minutes. Williams is expected to return to the starting lineup for this game. With Middleton out for the Bucks, they started Bobby Portis in his place against the Bulls, giving them a very big front line. I’m including Portis in the starters but they may very well go to Grayson Allen or Pat Connaughton to start in this series.
Probable Celtics Starters
Probable Bucks Starters
George Hill (abdomen) out
Khris Middleton (knee) out
Al Horford vs Giannis Antetokounmpo
Antetokounmpo may very well be the best player in the league. He will be very difficult to stop but the Celtics can hopefully slow him down somewhat. He averaged 28.6 points, 13.4 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.4 blocks against the Bulls. He shot 56.8% from the field and 15.4% from beyond the arc. He averages 28.3 points on 54.3% shooting from the field against Boston. The Celtics will likely throw different looks at him to defend him as they did with Durant, although Antetokounmpo won’t be as bothered by the physical defense as Durant was.
Marcus Smart vs Jrue Holiday
Holiday averaged 16.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 6.8 assists against the Bulls in the first round. He shot 40.7% from the field and 34.5% from beyond the arc in the first round. He averages 20.8 points and 8.0 assists while shooting 43.2% from the field and 28.6% beyond the arc against the Celtics. It is important for the Celtics to limit all the players around Giannis if they hope to get a win in this game.
Jayson Tatum vs Bobby Portis
Portis averaged 11.6 points, and 11.4 rebounds in the first round against the Bulls. For the series, he shot 44.9% from the field and 36.0% from beyond the arc. In his starts after Middleton went down, he averaged 16 points, 13 rebounds and shot 50% from the field and 42% from beyond the arc. Jayson Tatum was clearly the best player in the Celtics first round series against the Nets where he averaged 25.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 7.3 assists while shooting 45.6% from the field and 41.9% from beyond the arc. Against Milwaukee, he averages 31.3 points on 47.1% shooting from the field and 44.4% on 3 pointers. The Celtics will need Tatum to continue his strong play in this series, although it won’t be quite as easy with Milwaukee’s length and strong defense.
Keys to the Game
Defense - Defense is absolutely the key to winning every game. The Celtics defense climbed to first place in the regular season but after the first round, they are just 10th with a defensive rating of 115.0. The Bucks are first in the post season with a defensive rating of 94.4. The Celtics must tighten up their defense and defend the Bucks’ star as well as their role players. They have to defend the perimeter as the Bucks have players shooting very well from beyond the arc. The also have to defend the paint since they have several players, including Giannis, who drive to the basket and are good finishing inside. They must play harder on defense than the Bucks in order to win this series.
Rebound - Rebounding is also a key to winning every game. You can’t score without the ball and the best way to get the ball and to get extra possessions is to crash the boards and beat the opponent to rebounds. Rebounding takes effort and when the Celtics put out extra effort to win the rebounding battle, that effort usually continues to other areas of the game. The Bucks are first in the playoffs with 51.8 rebounds per game. The Celtics are 10th with 39.5 rebounds per game. They will need to really hustle and work hard to beat the Bucks on the boards.
Be Aggressive for 48 Minutes - Jayson Tatum made the statement that the Celtics try to make sure that nobody plays harder than them. The Celtics must put those words into action against the Bucks and play harder than them for the full 48 minutes of this game. They have to come out strong right from the start and not dig a hole they will have to work to climb out of. They absolutely have to play hard and be the more aggressive team for all 48 minutes because if they allow the Bucks to play harder for any period of time, they may not be able to come back against them. They simply can’t have any lapses in effort if they want to beat a tough team like the Bucks.
Stay Focused - The Celtics must stay focused and not allow let the distractions of playing in the playoffs or all their publicity to take that focus away from playing the right way. They have to take good shots and make them. They have to move the ball and move without the ball and trust each other. They have to focus on making good crisp passes and not get sloppy with the ball. They have to play harder and be more focused than the Bucks if they want to get a win in this game.
Coaching - Buth Ime Udoka and Mike Budenholzer coached under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. Budenholzer spent 17 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, serving as an alternate video coordinator for the first two seasons and then as an assistant coach. Ime Udoka served as an assistant coach under Popovich for 7 years, winning a championship with them in 2014. Budenholzer is a 2 time Coach of the Year and led the Bucks to a championship last season. Udoka out coached Steve Nash in the first round, but he will have his work cut out for him against a seasoned coach like Budenholzer.
Home Court - When the Bucks tanked their last game to avoid the Nets, they also gave up home court advantage for the second round. Maybe they thought the Celtics wouldn’t get past the Nets and so it wouldn’t matter. The Celtics need to use their home court to their advantage. The crowd will be loud and will hopefully give the team a boost. The Bucks are mostly a veteran team and so will not likely get as rattled as a younger team would when playing in front of a hostile crowd on the road.
Rest vs Rust - Once again, the Celtics have had almost a week off since they last played in a game. While it was a good thing for them to heal some of the nagging injuries that cropped up against the Nets, it also may leave them a bit rusty going into this game. The Bucks last played on Wednesday and so their layoff hasn’t been quite as long. This is also a matinee game and so hopefully the Celtics will be ready for the game and not come out sluggish due to the early start.
Officiating - The officiating can always be an x-factor and maybe more so in these playoffs. Some referees call the game tight and others let them play. Some favor the home team and others call it evenly. Some refs just seem to have an agenda that doesn’t fit the play on the court. Giannis seems to always get more than his share of calls and that may be a problem. The Celtics have to play through however the refs call the game, whether it is tight or they let them play. They can’t allow bad calls or no calls to take away their focus on the game.
According to our friends at DraftKings, the Celtics are 4.5-point favorites hosting the Bucks in Game 1 of the second round. For what it’s worth, Boston is also a -210 to win the series. The defending champs abdicated home court advantage against the Celtics on the final day of the regular season and are now without Khris Middleton who is most likely out for at least the next two weeks with a sprained MCL.
Boston also comes in with their own issues. Even though he returned in Game 3 against the Nets, the Celtics are still acclimating Robert Williams back into the rotation. He’s ramped up his activity this week and should be ready for starter minutes, but it’s unclear whether he’ll rejoin the starting lineup or still come off the bench behind Daniel Theis. Regardless, Milwaukee likes to play big with Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis, and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the frontcourt so expect Williams to see plenty of time on the floor.
More concerning is the nagging hamstring of Jaylen Brown. Brown aggravated it towards the end of Game 4 and has said that the week off has helped. If he’s not 100%, that lessens whatever advantage Boston gained with Middleton shelved. Brown has flourished so far in the postseason as an off-ball scorer and downhill threat and he’ll be expected to challenge the Bucks’ “pack the paint” defensive scheme. That will take a toll, maybe not in Game 1, but certainly as the series progresses.
All odds are accurate at the time and date of publishing.
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