Playoffs 2019 East Semifinals: Bucks (1) vs. Celtics (4)

Backcourt play beginning to define Bucks-Celtics matchup

For all the attention to the bigs, it's been the guards defining this semifinal series

* Tonight on ESPN: Game 3, Bucks vs. Celtics (8 ET)

BOSTON – Not to downplay the contributions of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Al Horford, Khris Middleton and the other talented frontcourt players, but this Milwaukee-Boston Eastern Conference semifinals has been and will continue to be awfully guard-centric.

From Eric Bledsoe and Kyrie Irving, ball handlers who have initiated much of the action, to a pair of valuable role players racing to get back from injuries, a half-dozen Bucks and Celtics are defining (or still hope to define) this series from the backcourt up:

ERIC BLEDSOE has been the tip of Milwaukee’s spear, the guy who typically sets the Bucks’ pace and tone. He didn’t play hard enough in the opener and the whole roster sagged. In Game 2, Bledsoe was aggressive, pressuring Irving relentlessly and channeling attack mode into 21 points and a plus-23 rating in the Bucks’ blowout. Now Bledsoe is headed into TD Garden, site of his humbling in Games 1 and 2 last spring, with Celtics fans certain to remind him.

KYRIE IRVING played a maestro’s game Sunday, with 26 points and 11 assists while orchestrating and personally aiding Boston’s 54-percent accuracy in its 112-90 cruise. He crashed and burned in Game 2, scoring just nine points on 4-of-18 shooting and relinquishing any quarterback obligations for his team. But the six-time All-Star was curiously at peace afterward, embracing the performance while touching in his postgame comments on precise adjustments he plans to make in Game 3 on Friday night and beyond.

MALCOLM BROGDON is the guy conspicuous by his absence from the Bucks’ efforts at both end. In his third NBA season, he emerged as a true sniper, making more than 50 percent of his field-goal attempts, 40 percent of his 3-pointers and 90 percent of his free throws. Brogdon’s size allows him to defend multiple spots, and he developed a knack for asserting himself at pivotal points in close games, a minute or two where he’d take over with his “old-man game,” as Antetokounmpo calls it.

Until March 15, anyway. That’s when the plantar fascia pain in Brogdon’s right foot became a tear. He was listed out for Game 3, too, as of Thursday evening, but his workouts have been more active and encouraging, so Brogdon still might return as soon as Game 4 on Monday.

MARCUS SMART is Brogdon’s Boston counterpart, working back from a torn left oblique injury suffered in early April. He is a month into what had been projected as a 4-to-6 week recovery, and moved well in drills and 1-on-1 work Thursday against Celtics coaches. That’s still well short of the 5-on-5, full-contact work Smart has to show he can handle. But as with Brogdon, it’s trending in the right direction, even if both probably will need time to catch their rhythms.

Boston can’t get enough of the hustle and grit Smart routinely brings. He has been an unofficial coach from the side, urging on teammates in varied, essential, often floor-bound things he does. But the Celtics would be better with a healthy Smart showing rather than telling.

TERRY ROZIER, who was such a force in the 2018 playoffs subbing for an injured Irving, isn’t one to be counted out. It was Rozier who had Bledsoe on the run, with his memorable deke and step-back 3-pointer in Game 1, his 23 points in Game 2 and his 26 in the clincher. He’s back on the bench, averaging 10.0 points and 8.5 rebounds through the first two games, while shooting just 6-of-18.

Rozier was 21-of-55 from the arc in those seven games vs. Milwaukee last spring. Heading back into the Garden with the fans at his back, Rozier might catch fire again.

GEORGE HILL was acquired from Cleveland in December as veteran insurance at the point and for salary cap flexibility this summer (only $1 million of his $18 million for 2019-20 is guaranteed). But he’s an 11-year veteran with a broad wingspan for a 6-foot-3 man. And with 108 playoff games on his resume, Hill is a veteran of these East playoff battles, dating back to his time with Indiana butting heads against LeBron James’ Super Friends.

Hill and Ersan Ilyasova are the “old heads” of Milwaukee’s otherwise youngish bench. Coach Mike Budenholzer had Ilyasova for a stretch in Atlanta, but he and Hill go way back. They were in San Antonio when the Spurs made Hill, out of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, their first-round pick at No. 26 in 2010.

Hill was an apprentice behind All-Star Tony Parker for three years, starting only 55 of 231 games. But he developed enough to be targeted by the Pacers, who gave up the draft rights to Kawhi Leonard in the deal.

“They kind of molded me to the player I am today,” Hill said of Budenholzer and their then-boss Gregg Popovich. “It’s not nothing special. I just try to be consistent. Make the right play. Be a good teammate. Be solid out there on both ends of the floor. That’s been me my whole career, and it’s going to continue to be.”

Two different styles. He’s more of a drive/force cat, I’m more of a poised, relaxed style.”

George Hill on Eric Bledsoe

After joining Cleveland last season in a roster-rocking trade deadline move, Hill started 18 of 19 playoff games and made it to his first Finals. He opened this season putting up bigger numbers in the Cavs’ dreary, LeBron-less outpost. But now he’s back in heavy postseason competition, offering Budenholzer a nice shift of gears from the hard-charging Bledsoe.

“Two different styles,” Hill said. “He’s more of a drive/force cat, I’m more of a poised, relaxed style. It’s awesome to have two different options where you can speed it up or slow it down.”

The trust Budenholzer has in Hill is evident by when and how frequently the coach leans on him.

“It’s hard to articulate what George Hill means to the team,” Budenholzer said. “Particularly for me, just to have a point guard in Eric Bledsoe who starts the game and is a phenomenal defender, and then to have George come in, give Bled a break and really have no drop-off defensively.

“George has played in a ton of huge games. A lot of playoff series. He gives me a ton of comfort. I think he gives his teammates and everybody a lot of comfort, for sure.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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