The Eastern Conference semifinals, the two series that we've been waiting for since October, are almost here. The top four teams in the East are loaded with talent, and they all can reach The Finals if they can put it together on both ends of the floor. With apologies to the teams that finished Nos. 5-8 in the standings, it's time for the East playoffs to really get started -- and to find out which East team will be the first in the last nine years to reach The Finals without LeBron James. After this round, two franchises will be one step closer, and two teams will have seen their season end in disappointment.
The first matchup to be set is the one between the team expected to be the best in the East (the Boston Celtics) and the team that was the best in the East (Milwaukee Bucks). These two squads met in the first round last year, a series won in seven games by a Celtics team missing Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. They have both this year, but the Celtics are facing a much different opponent than the one they beat a year ago.
The players in Milwaukee uniforms are mostly the same, but this was the most improved team in the league. The Bucks took significant steps forward on both ends of the floor under new head coach Mike Budenholzer, who has unlocked the both-ends-of-the-floor brilliance of MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo.
After an up-and-down regular season, the Celtics swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round, perhaps showing that focus on a single opponent can bring out their best. Even without Marcus Smart, they have a strong rotation that goes eight deep, led by Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, one of the league's best closers and one of its most capable defenders of a player like Antetokounmpo.
Both teams swept through their first-round series. This one promises to go longer.
Three things to watch
1. How do the Celtics match up with Antetokounmpo? In both last year's playoff series and this year's regular season, Horford was Antetokounmpo's primary defender. If he continues to start at power forward (with Aron Baynes at center), that's the matchup, and the Celtics had success in defending the Bucks when Horford defended Antetokounmpo in two games this season.
Of course, playing smaller -- with Horford at center, instead of Baynes -- would force Brook Lopez to venture away from the rim on defense. After Horford, the guy that the Celtics have used most to defend Antetokounmpo over the last two years is Semi Ojeleye, who saw less than 30 seconds of playing time in the first round.
2. Have the Celtics flipped the switch? They've definitely tightened things up defensively. Indiana wasn't the most potent offensive team in the postseason, but the Celtics held the Pacers to 13.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than they scored in the regular season (12.7 fewer than Indy scored in its regular-season games without Victor Oladipo).
Boston's defense was particularly strong on the interior, holding the Pacers to just 51 percent shooting in the paint (down from 56 percent in the regular season) and allowing them to grab a just 20 percent of available offensive rebounds (lowest in the first round and down from 27 percent in the regular season). The Bucks shoot a lot of 3s, but defending Milwaukee starts in transition and with keeping Antetokounmpo from getting to the rim.
3.How important would Malcolm Brogdon's return be? The Bucks have played well enough since Brogdon went down with a plantar fascia tear on March 15. Replacement starter Sterling Brown shot well (11-for-19) in the first round, and Eric Bledsoe will be the primary defender on Irving no matter what. But Brogdon would not only give the Bucks additional 3-point shooting (he ranked eighth in the league this season at 42.6 percent), but also another playmaker who can attack off the dribble. It seems doubtful, meanwhile, that Smart (out with a torn oblique muscle) would be able to return for the Celtics in this series.
The number to know
174-117 -- In winning the regular season series 2-1, the Bucks outscored the Celtics, 174-117 -- an average of 58-39 -- on points scored in the restricted area or at the free-throw line.
Overall, Milwaukee ranked second in the percentage of their shots that came from the restricted area, while Boston ranked 27th. Milwaukee ranked 18th in free-throw rate (25.5 attempts per 100 shots from the field), while Boston ranked 30th (21.5). The Bucks have been outscored in the paint in just seven of the 76 games (playoffs included) that Antetokounmpo has played in this season, and outscored the Celtics, 62-22, in the paint on Nov. 1.
The Celtics actually won that meeting because they made a franchise-record 24 3-pointers. Horford's 11 3-point attempts that night were two more than he's launched in any other game in his career. Assuming that Milwaukee continues to dominate near the basket, the series will be determined by how well the Celtics (and Horford in particular) shoot from the outside.
The case can be made that the Celtics are just a better playoff team than they were a regular-season team. They're an experienced group that knows how to execute a game plan with a single opponent in front of them. And at times, they can look like both the best offensive team and the best defensive team in the Eastern Conference. But the Bucks are both the best offensive team and the best defensive team in the East. Antetokounmpo put up big numbers in last year’s series, he’s got a much more potent offense around him this time, and the Celtics’ offense (which struggled at times in the first round) might not be able to keep up. In honor of Brandon Jennings, the pick is Bucks in 6.
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