First Round Preview: Milwaukee Bucks
Well, we’ve done it; another 82-game slog is finished and the Celtics, despite all the mishaps this season, finish with 55 wins and are locked into the 2-seed in the Eastern Conference. During any normal year, the first 2 seeds in a conference are the odds-on favorites to meet in the conference finals, this year, however, with the playoff cloud looming over the 1-seed Toronto Raptors, and the swathe of injuries afflicting the 2-seed Celtics, the Eastern Conference is as open and available as its ever been. Every single series in the East figures to be a long one, each team matches up competitively with the other, and we could see teams once considered contenders knocked out very early (ourselves included). The Boston Celtics will be without everyone on their injured player's list for the length of the series (unless Marcus Smart sacrifices his eternal soul to come back early), so the roster is set in stone to start the playoffs, and without further ado, your round one preview.
Opponent: Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 44-38 (7th in East)
Season Series: 2-2
Game 1: Sunday 4th of May @ TD Garden
This matchup is the one I personally preferred out of the three possible opponents; The Bucks are a feast or famine team that can look like an absolute work of basketball art on one night, or an absolute dumpster fire the next. The Bucks are long, rangy, athletic and can be lethal in transition, but questions about their interior defense and shooting ability will come to light early in the series. The Celtics are well positioned to take advantage of the Bucks’ weaknesses, but make no mistake, a Celtics win is far from guaranteed.
Brad Stevens has his troops all singing the same tune, his squad is connected, they trust one another, and they are reasonably well balanced for a ragtag group that has been decimated by injuries. The Celtics were the league’s best defensive team this season beating out Utah by a hair (BOS: 101.5, UTA: 101.6) and that prowess on the less glamorous end figures to carry through against the Bucks. The Celtics have improved on the glass this year thanks to the additions of Aron Baynes, Marcus Morris, Daniel Theis, and midseason acquisition Greg Monroe, which will help tremendously against the long and athletic Bucks. Expect the Celtics defense to be stifling all series long, this is where the green team hangs its hat, and they have proven throughout the year that they are more than a match on the defensive end for just about any team.
Brad Stevens, who figures to be on many shortlists for the Coach of the Year award gives Boston a tremendous advantage on the sidelines, his play calling and rotations this season has allowed the Celts to escape with wins they otherwise wouldn’t have had. Stevens has improved his win total every season he has coached in the league, and his expertise in ATO sets, late-game situations and managing runs gives a huge advantage to the C’s.
The Celtics have dipped very deep into their rotation to field a full roster for the playoffs. No one in their right mind would’ve foreseen Abdel Nader playing significant playoff minutes before the start of this season, but injuries have necessitated his performance, the Celts are normally comfortable rolling with their bench units for large stretches of games, but when the rotation shortens in the playoffs, Brad may find himself with only 7 or 8 players he can really trust to deliver the performances necessary.
Kyrie Irving was brought in to solve this very problem, when the intensity reaches fever pitch in the playoffs, and your opponent has shut down all avenues to score through careful game planning, you could toss the ball to The Bus Driver, and trust that he would take everyone to school. That worked well for the 60 odd games that Kyrie played, however, in his absence the Celtics will need to find consistent offense from somewhere. In the last few games of the season, the C’s would hit scoring droughts that destroyed their chances in games, to beat the Bucks, they will need to find consistent and diverse avenues to score.
The age-old playoff adage is that the team with the best player normally wins the series. Giannis Antetokounmpo is an absolute superstar, in every sense of the word; he is an absolute nightmare in transition, where he can cover the whole court in seemingly 3 strides, he is becoming adept at the soul-crushing chase down block (which Jaylen Brown is intimately familiar with).
Giannis is also an improving shooter, but most importantly, he is one of the toughest one-on-one covers in the entire NBA with the ability to find seams in the defense that no one else possibly could. The list of players that can swing a series on their own is incredibly small, but Giannis is on it. To a lesser extent, some of the Bucks’ supporting cast members can be equally dangerous, Jabari Parker is capable of 20 on any given night, Middleton, Brogdon, and Bledsoe can all run amok on teams if they are unchecked, the Bucks are a very top-heavy team, but that starting firepower can overwhelm teams that are unprepared.
The Bucks are long and rangy at almost every position; this means that passing lanes are much smaller, and transition opportunities abound. Led by superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo whose supernatural length and athleticism is a prime example of the transition advantage the Bucks enjoy, Milwaukee will make you pay for every lazy pass or failure to box out effectively. Guys like John Henson, Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton all have Go-Go-Gadget arms that cover a significant distance and present the Celts with a serious challenge.
The Bucks’ defense this season has been relatively soft this season, they end the year ranked 17th with a DRTG of 107.1 (per nba.com) this is also the 3rd lowest rating of any playoff team in the NBA (behind Cleveland and Minnesota), they also are the 3rd worst team in the NBA in opponent FT% which is an indicator that they both foul too much, or rely too heavily on help defense in the paint which often leads to freebies. The eye test is even less forgiving than the analytics; teams seem to be able to score on the Bucks at will when they aren’t engaged and last night’s drubbing at the hands of the burgeoning Philadelphia 76ers is a good example.
When a coach is fired halfway through the season, it is normally not a good sign of team success. Interim head coach Joe Prunty has not installed any ground-breaking concepts to his team, and the Bucks’ middling record is evidence to the fact that they have not made any tangible progress, despite Giannis’ top 5 MVP season. Still, this assessment is entirely based on the fact that Prunty has not had a tangible impact on the Bucks' success this year, he could well prove me wrong by adding some wrinkles to his team that throw the Celtics off during the series.
The Celtics will win if:
They can defend with the same intensity and consistency they have done throughout the regular season, and if they can limit the rest of the Bucks’ supporting cast. The Celts will need some magic from their Sideline Sorcerer Brad Stevens after timeouts, but if the green team plays their brand of basketball, they are positioned very well to advance in the playoffs.
The Bucks will win if:
They can shut down the Celtics offense in the half court and do some damage in transition. The Celtics problems scoring without Irving have been seriously pronounced lately. If they don’t get into a flow offensively, the series could get out of hand quickly. Equally important for the Bucks will be their ability to get everyone involved; Giannis will get his points, that much is certain, but if 2-3 of the other starters can get around 15 points and the bench also contributes the Bucks will be tough to stop.
Celtics in 6 games.