We’ve done this before. Three years ago, we brought our beat writers together for a series preview of a second-round matchup between the Bucks and Celtics.
The Bucks were in the midst of a magical run through the league that seemed too good to be true. They had won 60 regular-season games in Mike Budenholzer’s first season in Milwaukee and swept the Pistons in the first round. They appeared unstoppable and primed to complete a shocking one-year turnaround that took them from a first-round playoff exit to a championship.
Spoiler alert: The magic ran out. The Bucks lost to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals when Nick Nurse and Co. built a wall in front of the rim and slowed down Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Celtics were in their second season with mercurial star Kyrie Irving. While the second regular season with Irving was rockier than his first in Boston, the Celtics had still made the Eastern Conference Finals that first season and the team was ready to sign Irving to a max extension in the offseason and form a meaningful, long-term extension with Irving.
Spoiler alert: They broke up. Irving left for Brooklyn where he eventually formed a “super team” with Kevin Durant, but that team got eliminated by the Bucks last postseason and the Celtics this postseason.
If the recent history of both franchises has taught us anything, it is that things can change in a hurry, so we need to focus on the current moment and figure out what could be coming next. Let’s take a closer look at this second-round matchup with Celtics writers Jared Weiss and Jay King and Bucks writer Eric Nehm.
Nehm: Fellas, thanks for joining me. Looking forward to making my way to Boston this weekend. Let me start here.
As I’ve rewatched some of the Bucks-Celtics games from earlier this season and then also watched the Celtics-Nets series, I’ve found myself struck by just how different the Celtics looked in December versus what they look like now. Can I get a CliffsNotes version of how this team managed to transform into what appears to be a potential postseason juggernaut?
Weiss: They’ll tell you it’s health, first and foremost. Sure, they have everyone and that’s going to make them better. But that health at least finally allowed them to fail enough at full strength to figure out who they are and who they need to be. Early January was when they really hit rock bottom and had to make some big changes from there. Ime Udoka stopped using Dennis Schröder as a floor spacer in crunch time, which went a long way to helping their offense not completely shut down late in games.
Udoka fully realized the potential of a double big lineup by having the power forward guard the pick-and-rolls and letting the center roam off weak side shooters or bigs in the dunker spot behind the hoop, so they can go make plays. Suddenly Al Horford was back to guarding pick-and-roll at an elite level and Rob Williams got into a rhythm helping off shooting guards in the corners so he could make life miserable for everyone trying to get to the rim. Once they brought in Derrick White for Josh Richardson and Payton Pritchard for Schröder after the deadline, their defense had more of an edge to it and they just moved the ball on offense with much more crispness and certainty. They’ve continued to improve since then while Udoka has shown over the past month that his game planning and mid-game adjustments are playoff-ready.
Boston is coming off a strong defensive performance against a superstar after taking Kevin Durant out of his game. Giannis presents different challenges, but he and Durant are the two guys who always have their length as the trump card for whatever the defense throws at them. After the Celtics were able to contain Durant for most of a sweep, they’ve gotta be a good bet to make a huge impact on Antetokounmpo. So after watching the Nets series, what do you think of Boston’s chances to throw him off his game with Khris Middleton out?
Nehm: At this point in his career, Antetokounmpo has seen every scheme, every coverage and every wall of help defense. He knows what teams are going to do to him and how to beat it, but that doesn’t mean he’s impossible to stop. All these years later, the formula against him has not changed.
To slow down Antetokounmpo effectively, it takes a three-pronged approach. First, on the ball, you need someone that either has the strength to crowd him and take some bumps or the foot speed to get underneath him and fall over. The Celtics have one of each of those players in Al Horford and Marcus Smart. Both players have taken turns on him and pestered him on the ball.
From there, you need a strong rim protector. The excellence of an elite on-ball defender on Antetokounmpo can be wasted if there is no one at the rim to clean up the attempts at the rim Antetokounmpo creates with Euro steps, pump fakes and step-through moves. The Celtics have one of those in Robert Williams.
And finally, you need long-armed defenders that can execute a game plan and be annoying in driving and passing lanes. With Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Derrick White off the bench, the Celtics have all of those things as well.
Without Middleton around to create shots, things could become pretty stagnant for the Bucks as the role players that have stepped in for Middleton need most of their shots to be created by somebody else. After the Bucks’ Game 5 win, Antetokounmpo admitted that points are going to be tougher to create without Middleton, so they are going to have to get it done defensively.
With that in mind, the Celtics scored 119.2 points per 100 possessions in the first round, which makes them the second-most efficient offense thus far in the postseason. On the surface, it seemed impressive, but digging deeper into the numbers, it appears as though they never scored all that efficiently in half-court settings outside of Game 2, per Cleaning the Glass, and instead destroyed the Nets’ lazy transition defense on a nightly basis.
You both kept a close eye on the Celtics in that series against the Nets, what is the truth about the Celtics’ offense? Is it the elite unit that showed up in the first round? Or just an above-average offense (eighth in offensive efficiency) like they showed in the regular season?
King: It depends on what version of the Celtics you believe in. They finished eighth in offensive efficiency, as you noted, but that’s largely because they ranked 22nd through Jan. 7. From that point forward, they poured in 118.2 points per 100 possessions, which would have easily led the league over the course of the full season. From the trade deadline on — let’s call it the post-Schröder era — they dusted teams with 121.6 points per 100 possessions. The Nets are the Nets, but the Celtics have scored on just about everybody lately. This offense is probably closer to elite than just above-average.
That said, the Celtics do have some holes, which the Bucks will try to pick on. I’m most interested in seeing the extent to which Milwaukee, kings of funneling the ball to bad 3-point shooters behind the arc, can steer the Boston offense to its least efficient parts. The Celtics do have some iffy shooters in Smart, White and maybe even Horford, though Horford has shot at a high level since his team’s midseason turnaround. If those guys are missing open looks, the Celtics could go through some rough stretches. The formula for them won’t be as easy as it was in the first round, when the Nets had several weak links to target at all times.
Without Middleton, the Bucks have turned to a jumbo starting frontcourt of Brook Lopez, Antetokounmpo and Bobby Portis. That group posted great numbers, especially defensively, during the first round. Do you think that will hold up against the Celtics? It could present some stressful matchups for Milwaukee, such as Portis on Brown. If Middleton does miss the whole series, one question mark I have for the Bucks is whether they have the correct wing personnel to guard Tatum and Brown. How will the Bucks get by without him?
Nehm: Honestly, with a healthy Middleton, I thought the Bucks were a little bit undersized on the wing against Tatum and Brown. Without him, matchup problems abound.
The Bucks believe in Wesley Matthews, but while he was big, strong and savvy enough for 6-foot-6 DeMar DeRozan, he might be a little bit outside of Tatum’s weight class at just 6-foot-5 and Brown has a bit of height and length on him as well. Without Middleton’s size to connect everything together defensively, I’m just not sure how the Bucks try to make it all work, especially the switching units that found success last postseason.
I’d expect the Bucks to keep Portis in the starting lineup, but Budenholzer will keep that a secret until 12:30 p.m. ET, as he always does. If Portis is the starter, I’d suspect the Bucks try to match up like this:
- Jrue Holiday — Jayson Tatum
- Wesley Matthews — Jaylen Brown
- Giannis Antetokounmpo — Marcus Smart
- Bobby Portis — Robert Williams
- Brook Lopez — Al Horford
Holiday spent a large majority of the minutes on Tatum during the regular season and with Middleton’s injury, I just don’t know how else they could match up with the Celtics’ wings. The Bucks have often used Antetokounmpo on Smart over the years, so to me, that seems like the most logical way for them to go about using the starting lineup from the last round, but there is a minuscule sample size with these three-big lineups. Maybe the Bucks bring Grayson Allen or Pat Connaughton into the starting lineup instead of Portis, but that leaves one of them on Smart, Brown or Tatum and I’m not sure that’s ideal either. (Allen did, however, start the second regular-season matchup on Smart.)
The consensus around the league is the Celtics have the NBA’s best defense, but I’m curious if you think the Bucks can poke a hole in it with their skilled big men. Portis has shot the ball at an incredibly high level since joining the Bucks and Lopez has done just about everything — pick-and-pop, pick-and-roll, post-up — in the last two seasons. Could that give the Celtics bigs problems? How would the Celtics counter a small-ball look from the Bucks with Antetokounmpo at center?
Weiss: Boston’s one defensive vulnerability tends to be length around the rim, where Milwaukee’s bigs have caused them problems in the past. Boston has always valued stronger, smaller centers who can move their feet on the perimeter and that’s exactly how this roster is constructed, though Rob Williams and Horford have been dominant at the rim this year. Boston’s fear is that Lopez or Portis takes them to the post with space and forces a double team, where they would have to try to recover to either a knockdown shooter or Antetokounmpo moving off the catch. Even a skyscraper couldn’t stay in front of him when he can get downhill as the ball is coming.
But Grant Williams and Horford are strong enough to force Lopez and Portis to shoot over them. If those guys get hot, that’s when they have to start doubling and that’s probably going to happen a few times throughout the series. But I like Boston’s chances against the Bucks’ small lineup with Antetokounmpo at the five. The Celtics can stay double big against those groups since they have two centers that can stay in front of Antetokounmpo in single coverage in Horford and Rob Williams. Plus, they have a good power forward option in Grant Williams to help with those switches while still being quick enough to contest on kick-outs to the corners.
Lopez has always caused problems for Boston with his reach and power. Rob Williams is still rusty and trying to find his wind back, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he is still not even 90 percent when this series starts. Brooklyn couldn’t run pick-and-pop with their bigs, so Boston was able to sit back in drop coverage on most of their pick-and-rolls. The Bucks have two bigs who thrive in that action. With Rob Williams mostly playing a zone in the pivot these days and Horford up in the pick-and-roll, how do you see Boston trying to cover Lopez and Bobby Portis?
Nehm: It’s going to be fascinating to see how the Celtics try to match up against the Bucks if Budenholzer decides to continue starting the super-sized lineup with three bigs. Horford seems like the most natural primary defender for Antetokounmpo, which would leave two big men to cover and just one Williams.
With Lopez’s size, it seems like Williams would be the natural matchup and that would leave a wing to cover Portis. The Bulls tried that out with DeMar DeRozan and Portis calmly got to his spots for easy buckets. Another option would be to make Smart the primary defender on Antetokounmpo and use the bigs as help defenders, but as you mentioned, the Bucks could just put Lopez and Portis behind the 3-point line and take the Celtics’ bigs away from the rim.
Weiss: If Boston wants to go small, it’s likely going to be a lineup with Smart, White, Brown, Tatum, and one of the centers, since they’re going to be switching and need to have the length across the board. I’m not sure they would really need to go small in this series unless they want to really pick up the offensive pace. But wouldn’t playing at a higher speed benefit Milwaukee?
Nehm: It’s tough to say. The Bucks will always be incredibly dangerous in transition — they have the greatest transition player of all time in Antetokounmpo — and they have played at one of the fastest paces in the NBA in each of Budenholzer’s four seasons in Milwaukee, so there is a level of comfort to be found by pushing the ball in transition and not playing against the league’s best defense set up and waiting in a half-court setting.
But the Celtics destroyed the Nets in transition, so starting a track meet against the Celtics doesn’t seem like the best idea … even if Udoka said his team doesn’t wear track shoes the other day. I’d suspect the Bucks try to slow the pace and turn this thing into a rock fight to lengthen the series.
Speaking of coaches, how has Udoka held up in his first season? What did you think of his first regular season and then his first playoff series?
King: During the first couple of months of the regular season, he ripped the Celtics players so regularly that I routinely heard from rival team sources questioning his tactics. When the team fell to 18-21 just about midway through the season, Udoka seemed overmatched.
He just needed time. He eventually built the NBA’s best, most versatile defense. He pushed Tatum to another level as a playmaker. Udoka shaped a selfless culture and turned the Celtics into one of the league’s toughest teams. Though I think it’s still fair to question his playoff credentials as a first-time head coach, he did everything right in the Nets series. The Celtics took away Durant and Irving, forced the other guys to beat them (they couldn’t) and dominated possessions when the games were close. It was obvious how thoroughly the Boston players trusted in the game plan. Udoka put them in advantageous situations throughout the sweep.
That said, the Bucks series should be totally different. It should be almost inverted because where the Nets stars lived outside, Antetokounmpo kills you by driving straight through you. Where the Nets were susceptible in the paint, the Bucks are designed to take away all those easy buckets. The game plan against them will be new. If Jaylen Brown, who’s nursing a tight hamstring, needs to miss any time, that will only make it more difficult on Udoka. But as of Thursday afternoon, the Celtics expected him to play in Game 1.
Middleton isn’t expected to do the same. When a star gets injured, I think the biggest impact often comes deeper in the rotation. The guys forced into bigger roles by the absence. How has the Bucks depth been altered by his absence? Who will need to step up for them in Round 2?
Nehm: After Middleton went down against the Bulls, Budenholzer trimmed his rotation down to eight players. The five-man starting lineup, plus Allen, Connaughton and Jevon Carter. It’s a weird bit of rotation construction to put all three big men into the starting lineup and only have wings and forwards available off the bench, but Budenholzer has used that setup to move from big lineups to a small-ball unit with Antetokounmpo as the lone big man on the floor in the first quarter.
This season more than ever, the Bucks leaned into the excellence of their big 3 and losing Middleton means the Bucks will need someone to step up and serve as the team’s third scorer, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the same player every night.
In the first two games after Middleton’s absence, Grayson Allen put up playoff career-highs in back-to-back games with 22 points and 27 points in Games 3 and 4 respectively. In Game 5 against the Bulls, Pat Connaughton went 6-of-9 from the 3-point line and scored 20 points. In the final three games of the series, Bobby Portis averaged 15.3 points and 14.3 rebounds per game.
If the Bucks are going to pull out this series, they will need big performances from their role players. And with the wall that the Celtics will almost certainly build in front of Antetokounmpo, the big performances will almost certainly come in the form of lights-out 3-point shooting performances from Allen, Connaughton or Portis.
So, let’s get to the good part. Who is going to win this series? How many games will it take them? And most importantly, why?
Weiss: Celtics in six. They should be slight favorites if Middleton was healthy, but it’s hard to see Milwaukee even pushing this seven games without him. Boston has been consistently overwhelming opponents for several months now and Middleton was always crucial in this matchup as an elite shotmaker over great defense for vital stretches. Boston is designed to force the opposing star to be a playmaker and fight tooth and nail to get to their spots. Unless Holiday is going to have the best offensive series of his career, Boston should win this one.
King: I would have said otherwise if Middleton were healthy, but I’ll go with Celtics in seven. They have been all business for months. Without Middleton, I just don’t think Milwaukee will be able to score enough against this Boston defense. The Celtics won’t have an easy time with the defending champions, but in the end, they will have enough to win the final game of the series at home. If they do, the Bucks will be left second-guessing their strategy of resting regulars on the last day of the regular season, which is the only reason the Celtics have home court advantage in this series.
Nehm: If the Bucks are going to win this series, it will require the best series Giannis Antetokounmpo has ever played, or at least something in line with what he was doing in last year’s NBA Finals, as well as special performances from some of the Bucks’ role players. Antetokounmpo is likely up for it, but I’m not sure the Bucks’ role players can create enough quality shots against the Celtics’ league-leading defense.
On top of that, they will miss Middleton’s size against the Celtics’ wings on defense in their normal scheme as well as the moments they try to switch everything. Antetokounmpo will keep the Bucks in this series and it will be close, but ultimately, I don’t think the Bucks have enough. Celtics in seven.
(Top photo: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)