Series Preview: Celtics vs. Bucks

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After sweeping the Brooklyn Nets out of the first round, the Boston Celtics are ready for Round 2. Next up: the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.

The second-seeded Celtics will have home-court advantage over the third-seeded Bucks, and it is a much-welcomed advantage against a team that features a two-time MVP and former Defensive Player of the Year in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

This is a familiar postseason matchup for both teams, as it will mark their third series in the past five years. Boston won a seven-game, first-round thriller in 2018, and Milwaukee exacted revenge the next spring with a 4-1 victory in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The Celtics and Bucks have been fairly even in the playoffs historically speaking with Boston holding a slight, 21-18 win-loss lead. However, the C’s have dominated from a full series standpoint, having eliminated the Bucks five times in seven opportunities.

Series matchup No. 8 between these teams should be another close battle, as the hottest team in the NBA is set to measure up against the defending champs. To get you prepared for what’s to come, we’ve laid out some of the most vital information pertaining to the upcoming best-of-seven battle:

Recent Head-to-Head History

Boston and Milwaukee were about as even as could be during their regular-season series. The Celtics won the first two games at TD Garden before the Bucks captured the latter two at Fiserv Forum. Boston had just a slight scoring advantage in those four matchups, outscoring Milwaukee 473-460.

However, there are several reasons to not put a lot of stock into those results, because on only one occasion were both teams at full strength. In Boston’s 122-113 win on Nov. 12, the Celtics were missing Jaylen Brown, and the Bucks were without Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. During their 117-113 loss on Christmas, the C’s were missing Al Horford and Grant Williams. During its 127-121 loss on April 7, Boston was without Horford and Jayson Tatum. The only full-strength game happened to be the most lopsided effort of the four meetings – a 117-103 Celtics win on Dec. 13.

Boston and Milwaukee’s evenness dates back several in their recent history. Since Brown's rookie season in 2016-17, the teams have gone 10-10 in head-to-head matchups, and this playoff series shouldn’t buck the trend.

Key Matchup: Horford vs. Antetokounmpo

Before diving into this matchup, let’s make one thing clear: defending Antetokounmpo is not a one-man job; it’s not a two-man job or a three-man job; it’s a full team job. With that being said, there has to be one primary defender on the Greek Freak at all times, and that responsibility will fall likely fall on Horford whenever he’s in the game.

It will be one of the toughest challenges of the 35-year-old's 15-year career. However, it’s a matchup that he knows well, so he already realizes what’s in front of him. There’s no stopping the Greek Freak; however, it is possible to slow him down. It will be Marcus Smart’s job to pester him around the perimeter, Horford’s job to be physical with him in the post, and should Antetokounmpo get through them both, it’ll be Rob Williams’ job to be ready to meet him at the rim.

In three matchups against the Celtics this season, Antetokounmpo averaged 28.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game, which were all stellar marks, but also below his season averages in each category. His field-goal percentage, 3-point percentage, and free-throw rate were down against Boston, as well.

Antetokounmpo’s worst game of the season series happened to be his lone matchup against Horford. He finished with just 20 points, eight rebounds, and three assists in Milwaukee’s 14-point defeat, and only scored eight points when matched up against Horford on 36 possessions.

Celtics head coach Ime Udoka said Thursday that Horford is “tailor-made” for this particular matchup. It will certainly be one of the biggest challenges of Horford’s career, but he also knows that he won't be taking it on alone.

Bucks Defense Back on Track?

Milwaukee’s defense has slipped over the past two seasons, as it went from having the best defensive rating in the NBA during the 2019-20 campaign to ninth last season, all the way down to 14th this season. Post-All-Star, the Bucks dipped even further to 20th with a defensive rating of 115.8.

However, Milwaukee did not look like a middle-of-the-pack defensive team during the first round, as it recorded a stifling defensive rating of 94.4, nearly 10 full points better than any of the other 15 teams posted.

The Bucks keyed in on Bulls star wing DeMar DeRozan, pressuring him at all moments both on and off-ball, much like the Celtics did with Kevin Durant in Round 1. There’s a good chance Milwaukee will attempt to do the same against Tatum.

While the Bucks are rolling on defense, the Celtics are doing the same on offense. Boston posted the second-best offensive rating, the second-best offensive rebounding percentage, and the fourth-most assists per game among all 16 teams in the first round.

Tatum was the main catalyst for Boston’s attack against the Nets, logging 29.5 points and 7.3 assists per game, which are the fourth and fifth-best playoff marks in the league, respectively. He’s also had tremendous success in his three matchups versus the Bucks this season, posting 31.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game.

Banged-Up Stars on Either Side

One of the reasons why Milwaukee must continue to be on its defensive A-game is because it will be missing one of its most potent offensive weapons. Khris Middleton suffered an MCL sprain during Game 2 against Chicago and has been ruled out through the second round.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points per game this season and has been Milwaukee’s most feared perimeter threat for several years. Celtics fans know all too well how impactful the three-time All-Star can be, as he has torched Boston on multiple occasions in the postseason.

Filling his void will be difficult, but the Bucks do have several role players who are capable of stepping up, as they did in Games 3, 4, and 5 against Chicago. Grayson Allen Put up 49 points combined in Games 3 and 4, Pat Connauton shot 6-of-9 from deep in Game 5, and Bobby Portis averaged 15.3 points and 14.3 points per game during Middleton’s absence.

On the other sideline, Jaylen Brown is a little banged up, as he came out of the first round dealing with another hamstring flare-up. At this time, his injury does not seem to be of major concern, as Udoka said Thursday that Brown is expected to play Game 1. But it is something to keep an eye on, nonetheless.

C’s Need Rob Back in Full Form

The biggest surprise of the first round, aside from Boston pulling off the sweep, was having Rob Williams return midway through the series. The fourth-year center had been expected to miss 28-42 days after undergoing a partial left meniscectomy, but he breezed through his recovery and made it back in time for Game 3, just 23 days after going under the knife.

In missing over three weeks, Williams was understandably a bit rusty in his return. He tallied just five points, seven rebounds, one assist, one steal, and one block during the 30 minutes he played in Games 3 and 4. However, he should benefit both from getting his feet wet in those two games and then having a full extra week to prepare for the second round.

Getting Williams back to full form will be crucial in this series because the Bucks will be a far more threatening force around the rim than the perimeter-oriented Nets.

Boston gave up the second-fewest points in the paint per game (42.5) this season, and Williams was the main reason why. He’ll be the last line of defense against Antetokounmpo, who led the East in points in the paint during the regular season with 15.9 per game.