Boston Celtics vs Milwaukee Bucks NBA Playoffs Series Preview: Lineups, preview & predictions
The Celtics will be without their best player when they face up against Giannis and his Bucks. Will they still have enough to get over the line?
The Celtics have, for a long time, loomed as the number two seed in the east, but who they would meet in Round 1 of the Playoffs wasn’t clear until the final day of the regular season. The three-way battle for sixth place ended with the Bucks in seventh, earning themselves what some would call a fortunate first-round matchup against an injury-riddled Celtics team.
Boston (55-27) started the season as well as they could have imagined, particularly given the dramatic injury to Gordon Hayward in the first quarter of the season. They jumped out to 22-4, and though they have remained a great team throughout the year, they haven’t been able to regain the level of play they showed in those first 26 games. With Kyrie Irving joining Hayward on the sidelines for the rest of the season late in March, that task has become even more difficult.
Whether they will need it to beat the Bucks is another story. Milwaukee are a team centered around one of the best players in the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo, but they have plenty of other useful pieces. Despite this, they could never fully get it going this season and ended with a relatively mediocre, at least given the talent they boast, 44-38 record. Since the All-Star break, they have been a sub .500 team at 12-13, and they will need to turn around their form if they want to challenge the Celts.
Three keys to the series
Boston’s defense – Particularly with Irving out for the rest of the season with a knee injury, the Celtics offense doesn’t look particularly potent. Fortunately for them, they have been the best defensive team in the league over the course of the season. They will not be putting up huge scores, so their defense will need to be locked in and at it’s best throughout this series.
Can Giannis handle the defensive heat? – As incredible a player as the Greek Freak is, his perimeter shooting is still a clear Achilles heel. During the regular season, this doesn’t cause him too many problems, as he can get into the paint at will – he was the leading paint scorer in the NBA this season at 15.7 points per game. In the playoffs, and particularly against a strong defensive team like Boston, these points might not be as accessible to him as he is used to.
Who do the Celtics go to in the clutch? – If it were a month ago, this would be easy to answer. Irving would handle the business, much like Antetokounmpo inevitably will at the other end of the floor. With him out, there is no clear option to take over down the stretch. Horford is a star but not one renowned for dominating games while Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are in their second and first seasons, respectively. Not that the Celtics won’t be able to deal with close games, but they will need to rely on continued smart basketball plays more so than the isolation situations Irving would no doubt create for himself.
Matchups to watch
Al Horford vs Giannis Antetokounmpo – This will, without a doubt, be the most important matchup of the series. The only two All-Star’s involved, these two will play huge roles at both ends of the floor for their respective sides. Antetokounmpo poses a greater threat at the offensive end than Horford, and he got the better of his Celtics counterpart when they met earlier in April with 29 points and six assists. The Greek Freak is also a freakish defensive talent, though Horford’s value on offense does not come from defendable plays. He sets screens, spaces the floor, and always makes the right pass, and his 12.9 points and 4.7 assists don’t go near giving justice to his offensive importance to Boston.
Jayson Tatum vs Khris Middleton – Physically, these two players couldn’t be more alike. Both come in at 6’8”, and both have long 6’11” wingspans. They are the ideal matchup for one another, and when they last met both managed 20 points. Both are good shooters and can score in a variety of ways, though Middleton, in his sixth NBA season, has a few more tricks up his sleeve than his much younger Celtics opponent. Tatum has, however, been the more efficient scorer of the two this season.
After starting the season as the league’s most dangerous 3-point shooter, a regression to the mean was justifiably expected, but he has maintained a mark of 43.4% from long range, an amazing number for a first-year player. In contrast, Middleton has had his worst shooting season since his rookie year, with his 35.9% from deep almost 8% less than last year. Despite this, he is still a dangerous offensive player with the ability to score big, and his nine assists opposed to Tatum earlier in April highlighted his ability to create for others too.
Antetokounmpo has been the best player in the four-game season series between these sides by a long, long way. The Greek Freak has scored at least 28 points in every game against Boston in 2017/18 to average 33.5 points on 53.9% shooting. He has also casually added 10.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 1.8 steals in these matchups.
Despite this statistical dominance, his opponent in these games has been useful himself. Horford’s 18.8 points per game against Milwaukee this season is significantly lower than Antetokounmpo, but they come at a ridiculous 70.5% shooting from the floor. To go with this he has put up 7.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks.
PG – Terry Rozier | SG – Jaylen Brown | SF – Jayson Tatum | PF – Al Horford | C – Aron Baynes
PG – Eric Bledsoe | SG – Tony Snell | SF – Khris Middleton | PF – Giannis Antetokounmpo | C – John Henson
Game 1: Sun. April 15, 1pm @ Boston
Game 2: Tue. April 17, 8pm @ Boston
Game 3: Fri. April 20, 9:30pm @ Milwaukee
Game 4: Sun. April 22, 1pm @ Milwaukee
Game 5*: Tue. April 24, TBD @ Boston
Game 6*: Thu. April 26, TBD @ Milwaukee
Game 7*: Sat. April 28, TBD @ Boston
The Bucks have a far better chance than most number seven seeds of knocking off their first-round matchup. They have a top-five player in the league which their opponent does not, and Boston will be without their best player from throughout the season. Antetokounmpo has also shown a penchant for playing well against the Celtics, dominating against them in four games this season, and Horford will have a hard time containing him in this series.
Boston, however, will still be too good, though it won’t be on the back of any one individual player. They are a better overall team than the Bucks, even in the absence of Irving. They are better coached, have a far more stable gameplan, and are much better defensively. They have the home court advantage, and these factors will be enough to see them win through to the second round. The Celtics will win this one in six.