The top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and fourth-seeded Boston Celtics were the NBA’s first two teams to win their opening-round series, sweeping the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons, respectively. Their Eastern Conference semifinals series is a rematch of last year’s first-round set that saw the Celtics win in seven games.
How they got here
Milwaukee: Practically from start to finish, the Bucks were statistically the NBA’s best team during the regular season. They were the only team to win 60 games and easily owned the league’s best net rating (plus-8.6). This after reaching the playoffs as a seventh seed and getting bounced in the first round last season — by Boston.
The difference? They hired Mike Budenholzer, who will almost certainly win Coach of the Year honors for a second time in five years. Offensively, the Bucks went from 25th in 3-point attempts per game last season to second in the league this season. They play smarter defensively, too, funneling opponents into low-percentage zones.
It helps that Giannis Antetokounmpo has completed his transformation from ridiculous upside to just plain ridiculous. Milwaukee’s schemes on both ends revolve around him. He now has space to attack the rim and shooters to find when defenses collapse around him. On the other end, his length and athleticism allows him to eliminate entire quadrants of the halfcourt while still protecting the rim.
The final All-Star spot in the East likely came down to Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe, with the former ultimately earning his first bid. They are both capable of carrying a secondary scoring load and switching most positions defensively. The additions of Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic allow Budenholzer to play massive lineups that still feature four shooters around Giannis. Bucks general manager Jon Horst essentially upgraded the entire menu, and it is drawing five-star reviews.
After failing to emerge from the first round in three previous playoff appearances in the Antetokounmpo era, the Bucks made quick work of the eighth-seeded Detroit Pistons, who were further disadvantaged by Blake Griffin’s knee injury. Milwaukee did everything that worked in the regular season and now enters the conference semifinals equipped with the confidence that it all works in the playoffs, too.
Boston: The Celtics, on the other hand, threw their motor into reverse this season. Boston failed to win 50 games despite adding Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to a roster that reached a second straight conference finals without them in 2018.
Young guns Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier all struggled readjusting to roles after tasting stardom during last year’s playoff run, and Irving did not respond well to that challenge, furthering friction by calling out their commitment. Meanwhile, Hayward spent much of his first season back from ankle surgery searching for the explosiveness and confidence that made him an All-Star.
The Celtics still fielded top-10 offensive and defensive outfits, and Irving was arguably the game’s most clutch scorer all season, but the chemistry was off just enough to stall each winning streak with a series of disappointing defeats. Even Al Horford, the ultimate sacrificial star, could not make the rollercoaster ride smoother.
Boston’s brass held out hope this collection of talent would turn its focus from individual to team success once the playoffs started, and the team’s first-round series was encouraging in that regard. They swept the Victor Oladipo-less Indiana Pacers, even if each of their four games against an inferior opponent rode the same ups and downs. Irving continued to dazzle, Hayward found his way, and an injury to Marcus Smart may have actually sorted out some minutes management issues.
Going back to the basics — forever switching on defense and moving on offense, with Kyrie driving whenever the clutch got stuck — the Celtics found their cruise control, and they at least believe that Milwaukee can’t make them hit the brakes.
Head to head
The Bucks won two of their three head-to-head meetings during the regular season, splitting two pre-Christmas meetings before winning the only post-trade deadline showdown by a single point when Irving missed a last-second floater.
The Celtics won the Nov. 1 matchup using the same strategy they used to hold off the Bucks in their seven-game first-round series last season, employing either Horford or Aron Baynes at the free throw line to wall off the interior from Antetokounmpo and trying to stay home on one-on-one matchups elsewhere.
Even still, Antetokounmpo averaged 31 points (on 59.3 percent shooting), 10.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and three combined blocks/steals in their three meetings. He got enough help to win the last two meetings, including a rare lights-out shooting effort from since-traded Thon Maker in the lone lopsided win of the season series.
As bad as Bledsoe was in last year’s playoff series with Boston, Middleton was good, shooting a blistering 61 percent from distance over the seven games. Both players should move towards the mean, and where that middle ground ends up settling could determine Milwaukee’s ability to defeat a let-Giannis-get-his strategy.
Horford is Boston’s most important player against the Bucks, finishing a plus-23 in 69 minutes over two games during the regular season. Injuries kept him and Baynes from the Dec. 21 meeting, and Milwaukee walked away a 120-107 winner. Just about every other Celtic underperformed against the Bucks this season, including Irving, who averaged 21.7 points on 22.3 shots over the three games.
One thing to watch in this series: Milwaukee was not great at defending the 3-point line this season, and Boston shot 37.2 percent against them on 43 attempts from distance per game. If the Celtics can stay hot and manufacture some offense in the paint, they should be able to find their way to enough points to stay competitive.
Likely starting lineups
Both the Celtics and Bucks will be without a key contributor for at least the start of the series. Smart suffered an oblique injury in the penultimate game of the regular season, and even the earlier side of his recovery timeline (4-6 weeks) would leave him out until early May. Same goes for Brogdon, whose foot injury came with a timeline of 6-8 weeks in mid-March. Both could realistically miss the entire series.
The Celtics are better equipped to replace Smart, as Brown and Rozier both have the aforementioned playoff experience. Brown has assumed Smart’s starting role. Boston also swapped Baynes for Marcus Morris in the late-season starting lineup.
Boston’s playoff starting lineup of Irving, Brown, Tatum, Horford and Baynes did not play at all against the Bucks and only played 25 minutes together in the regular season. They were outscored by a single point in 41 minutes against the Pacers.
More important for the Celtics has been their closing lineup. They have turned back to the opening-night starters — Irving, Brown, Tatum, Hayward and Horford — in the clutch. That group scored 37 points in 13 minutes against Indiana, mostly in the final five minutes of close games, but they too have not faced Milwaukee this year.
The Bucks have handed Brogdon’s starting role to Sterling Brown in the playoffs, and they have increased minutes for George Hill, a playoff-tested veteran who can replicate much of Brogdon’s playmaking, 3-point shooting and defensive duties.
Bledsoe, Middleton, Antetokounmpo and Lopez will also start, and the difference between Brogdon and Brown with that quartet was startling during the regular season. The Bucks outscored opponents by 6.2 points per 100 possessions in nearly 600 minutes with Brogdon in that lineup, and they were outscored by 12.7 points per 100 possessions in 128 minutes with Brown replacing him on that unit.
Of course, that group, as with most groups in their first-round series, owned the Pistons. The Bucks did not have much use for a closing lineup against Detroit, and they really haven’t played many meaningful late-game minutes since Brogdon went down, so it will be interesting to see how they respond if Boston can keep it close.
Matchups to watch
Giannis vs. the wall: Antetokounmpo got to the restricted area more than 10 times per game during the regular season, and shot nearly 75 percent once he got there. He also shot 73 percent on 9.5 free-throw attempts per game. With Horford and Baynes walling off the paint in the playoffs last season, Giannis earned fewer trips to the rim and to the line. Boston’s ability to limit his paint touches — and do so with a singular defender, without fouling — could make or break this series.
Kyrie vs. Bledsoe: Bledsoe defended Irving twice as much as Hill and five times as often as Brogdon in the regular season. Irving shot just 36.1 percent from the field opposite Bledsoe. Still, the Celtics point guard piled up assists working against the likely All-Defense pick, and Boston scored 142 points on the 111 possessions that Bledsoe guarded him. Nobody keeps Irving on ice, and Bledsoe melted down against Rozier in the playoffs last season, so he better come focused for this one.
Middleton vs. Boston’s wings: Like we said, Middleton scorched the Celtics in last year’s playoff series, and Boston is without Smart, who drew primary defensive responsibilities against the Bucks forward during this regular season. The Celtics also tried Brown, Tatum and Hayward opposite Middleton, and it was mostly Brown who fell victim to the veteran’s lights-out shooting last season. You can bet Boston coach Brad Stevens will throw them all at Middleton again until one sticks. On the other end, though, that combination of Tatum, Brown and a healthy Hayward could prove just as big a matchup nightmare for a Milwaukee team lacking wing depth.
How Boston can win
Horford limits Antetokounmpo, as much as one can limit a supernova, Baynes neutralizes Lopez, and the Celtics win matchups everywhere else, whether it’s one or more of their wings rising to meet Middleton, the bench taking it to them or Irving scorching flat earth. Boston’s defense can hang with Milwaukee, but the offense will have to perform much better than it did against Indiana, and that would require the Celtics finding a cohesiveness that seemed to escape them until just recently.
How Milwaukee can win
Antetokounmpo is the best player in the series, and it’s not close. That may be enough on its own, but star turns from Middleton and Bledsoe would make life miserable for Boston, especially if other Bucks make 3’s. Milwaukee made more than any other team in the East this season, but 3-point defense has been a staple of Boston’s last two conference finals runs. The Celtics may be ripe to unravel, and frustrating their playmakers at the rim could be the final tug Milwaukee needs.
Prediction: Bucks in seven.
Eastern Conference semifinals previews: No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 4 Boston Celtics • No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers
Western Conference semifinals previews: No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 4 Houston Rockets • No. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers
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