Series Preview: Celtics vs. Bucks
The Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks both cruised through the first round by sweeping their respective opponents. Now, the only two remaining undefeated playoff squads will face off in what will surely be a more competitive series for both teams.
This Eastern Conference Semifinals battle will be a rematch of last season’s first round, of which the Celtics outlasted the Bucks in seven games. Both squads have a much different look this time around, however, as Boston has been bolstered by the return of a pair of stars, and Milwaukee has continued to build around one of the most spectacular players in the game.
Here’s how the C’s and Bucks will likely match up from top to bottom.
Head Coaches – Brad Stevens vs. Mike Budenholzer
Brad Stevens will face the ultimate challenge during the second round, as he attempts to out-smart the National Basketball Coaches Association coach of the year.
During his first season at the helm in Milwaukee, Mike Budenholzer led the Bucks to a league-best 60-22 record – thier best mark in nearly 40 years.
The veteran head coach brought over a similar system to the one he used in Atlanta, and it worked wonders for the Bucks, who finished among the NBA’s top four teams in both offensive and defensive rating. Stevens and the Celtics know exactly how effective that system can be, having succumbed to a Budenholzer-led Hawks team in the first round of the 2016 Playoffs.
The circumstances in this series, however, are much different than they were three years ago. Stevens’ squad is more battle-tested than Budenholzer’s current group, as nearly every player on the Boston’s roster has more postseason experience than their Bucks counterparts. Another factor that could help Stevens is having the presence of Al Horford on his side, seeing as the veteran big man played in Budenholzer’s system for three seasons in Atlanta, including during that 2016 first-round tilt.
Budenholzer’s Bucks had a slight advantage over Stevens’ Celtics during the regular season, as they won two out of three matchups. It’s worth noting that two of those games were decided by four points or fewer, indicating that crunch-time coaching could play a major role in this series.
Point Guards – Kyrie Irving vs. Eric Bledsoe
Eric Bledsoe didn’t have it easy last postseason when he faced the wrath of “Scary Terry” Rozier in the first round. Things won’t any less demanding for him this time around, as he will now have to match up against one of the NBA’s elite ball handlers in Kyrie Irving.
Both point guards are coming off of fantastic first-round performances from an offensive perspective. Irving averaged team highs of 22.5 points and 7.8 assists per game against Indiana, while Bledsoe poured in 19.3 PPG and dished out 5.3 APG versus Detroit.
Looking at their head-to-head history, though, indicates that Irving has a substantial advantage. In 10 career matchups, Irving has averaged 21.4 PPG and 5.6 APG, while Bledsoe has compiled marks of 15.0 PPG and 5.9 APG. Irving also has a suburb 45.0 percent shooting clip from 3-point range against Bledsoe, who is typically a disruptive perimeter defender.
Irving has been even more dominant over Bledsoe in recent times. The pair faced off three times during the regular season and Irving outscored Bledsoe by an average of 21.7 to 11.3, while also dishing out nearly twice as many assists (6.3 to 3.3).
Bledsoe brings a great level of tenacity and has the ability to erupt on the offensive end on any given night, but he should once again be tested to his limits by his Celtics counterpart.
Shooting Guards – Jaylen Brown vs. Sterling Brown
The shooting guard matchup will be the Battle of the Browns, at least for the time being.
Jaylen and Sterling Brown are both recent additions to their respective teams’ starting rotations, as they are both filling in for injured teammates. Jaylen has taken the place of Marcus Smart, who suffered a torn oblique in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Sterling is filling the void of Malcolm Brogdon, who has been sidelined since mid-March because of a plantar fascia tear in his right foot.
It’s possible that we could see Brogdon return midway through the series, and Smart could potentially return near the end, but for now, we’ll focus on the guys who are available.
Jaylen has the clear upper hand in this matchup from a number of perspectives. First off, he’s far more experienced in this role than Sterling. Boston’s third-year wing has 134 career starts under his belt, including 19 during the postseason. Milwaukee’s sophomore wing, meanwhile, has made just 15 starts over the course of his career, including four during the Playoffs.
Another advantage that Jaylen has is that he’s experienced far greater success against his opponent. During his two matchups against the Bucks this season, he tallied a total of 36 points and 12 rebounds over 54 minutes of action. Sterling played in all three games against the Celtics, notching just two points and 10 rebounds over 48 minutes of play.
Based on his experience and recent success against Milwaukee, Jaylen should undoubtedly be the favorite in the Battle of the Browns. And, his defensive skill set on the perimeter should also help out with the next matchup.
Small Forward – Jayson Tatum vs. Khris Middleton
Khris Middleton was Milwaukee’s X-factor during last year’s playoff matchup. He averaged 22.6 PPG during the seven-game series, while shooting phenomenal clips of 59.8 percent from the field and 61.0 percent from long range.
This season, however, Middleton was far less efficient against Boston. A lot of that had to do with Jayson Tatum’s defense.
Tatum defended Middleton on a total of 44 possessions (second to Marcus Smart’s 49) and allowed only three points on a 14.3 percent shooting clip. Meanwhile, Tatum took it to Middleton on the offensive end, scoring 17 points on an 80 percent clip from the field over 81 possessions.
Both players enter this series on fire, after tallying near-identical statistics during their respective first-round matchups. Tatum averaged 19.3 PPG and 5.5 RPG against the Pacers, while shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 53.3 percent from deep. Middleton notched 19.0 PPG and 5.5 RPG versus the Pistons, while shooting 46.2 percent from the field and 45.8 percent from 3-point range.
It’s likely that we’ll see multiple defenders trying to cool off their hot hands. Jaylen Brown will probably provide some aid in guarding Middleton, while the next Buck on our list will certainly help out in defending Tatum.
The Power Forwards – Al Horford vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo
In reality, this will be the “Everyone vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo” matchup, but for the sake of consistency, we’re writing Al Horford in as the Greek Freak’s individual opponent.
There may not be a more difficult player in the world to defend inside the 3-point arc than Antetokounmpo. One man alone has no chance of stopping him. Even two players often don’t stand a chance. Heck, there have been times when the 6-foot-11 point forward has slashed through an entire team’s worth of defenders to throw down a thunderous dunk.
Coming off of an MVP-caliber season in which he averaged 27.7 PPG, 12.5 RPG and 5.9 APG, Antetokounmpo will undoubtedly be Boston’s biggest challenge in this series. Horford will likely get some help from Semi Ojeleye on the assignment, as those two took responsibility of nearly 60 percent of the Greek Freak’s offensive possessions during last year’s playoff series.
Because of Antetokounmpo’s star power, Horford may fly a bit under the radar in this matchup. Big Al had more success against Milwaukee than any team he faced this season. Against the Bucks, he logged his highest rebounding average (11.0 RPG), his highest assist average (6.5 APG) and his second-highest scoring average (19.5 PPG) among the 29 teams he faced.
Horford was also tremendously effective in last year’s playoff series, as he averaged 18.1 PPG, 8.7 RPG and 3.3 APG while shooting 58.8 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from beyond the arc.
The Centers – Aron Baynes vs. Brook Lopez
This matchup comes with a question mark next to it, because we’re not certain whether or not Stevens will start big or small against the Bucks. The coach has opted to go small in the last six matchups against Milwaukee, starting either Morris or Ojeleye at the 4. However, since there has been no announcement on any lineup change to this point, we’ll stick with the same starting five that has been on the court over the last several weeks, with Horford at the 4 and Aron Baynes at the 5.
Baynes and Brook Lopez bring two very different skill sets to the table, the former being a more defensive-minded player and the latter being more of an offensive threat.
Baynes stepped into the starting center role late in the season and has made an incredible impact clogging the lane. Lopez, though, has transitioned into a perimeter-oriented big, which is why there’s a solid chance that we could see Horford defending him the majority of the time.
Believe it or not, Lopez was Milwaukee’s leading 3-point shooter this season, having knocked down 187-of-512 attempts from long range. He was one of only two centers in the league who topped 100 3-pointers. The other – Karl-Anthony Towns – finished a distant second with 142 such makes.
Though, Lopez experienced a bit of trouble against the Celtics this season. Boston held him to just 5.0 PPG, which represented his lowest scoring average against any team. The 7-footer shot just 30 percent from the field and 21.4 percent from 3, marking his lowest clips versus any team that he faced at least three times.
Baynes only played 16 minutes against the Bucks this season, so he’s a bit tougher to gauge. Regardless, he should make his presence felt on the defensive end whenever he’s on the floor.
The Bench Units
One thing that these two teams have in common is that they both possess tremendous talent among their top nine rotation players. That depth will certainly come into play during this series.
Boston’s bench is led by Gordon Hayward, who closed out the first round with a team-leading 20-point effort on 7-of-9 shooting in Game 4 against the Pacers. He’ll be getting help from Marcus Morris (12.3 PPG in Round 1), Terry Rozier and Ojeleye.
Milwaukee’s second unit is headlined by George Hill, Nikola Mirotic, Irsan Ilyasova and Arlington, Massachusetts native Pat Connaughton. Those four players averaged between 15 and 28 minutes of action during the first round and accumulated 31.5 PPG. The Bucks could also get Brogdon back midway through the series, which would bump Sterling Brown back to the bench to give the Bucks another strong option to call upon.