Saturday, April 27, 2019

A deeper look at how Celtics matchup vs. the Bucks in this series

For the first time in three years, the Celtics will tip-off a playoff series on the road when they head to Milwaukee on Sunday for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Giannis Antetokoumpo and the Bucks.

It's been a few seasons since the Celtics were underdogs to a team other than the Cavaliers. Ironically enough, the last time a Brad Stevens' roster were not the favorites to beat a non-LeBron James squad was 2016. It was the Atlanta Hawks (Al Horford's last playoff run before signing in Boston later that summer) and Mike Budenholzer (now coach of the Bucks) who extended Stevens' postseason record at that point to 2-8.

The fifth seeded Celtics suffered a second straight first round knock-out, as that series ended in six games despite Isaiah Thomas' valiant effort.

This time around, the fourth place Celtics (49-33) will meet the team with the NBA's best record in the second round of the playoffs. Boston and the Bucks (60-22) played each other three times during the regular season, as Milwaukee won two of the matchups (one at home and one at TD Garden).

The only blowout for either team was a 120-107 Bucks win in Boston, which resulted in a Celtics' impromptu team meeting immediately following the nationally televised game just prior to Christmas Day.

The other two meetings were split and decided in four points or less; a 117-113 Celtics win at the Garden (hitting a franchise record 24 3-pointers) and a Bucks 98-97 victory in Milwaukee, where Kyrie Irving missed a game winning field goal in the team's first game following the All-Star break.

This will be the second consecutive year these two teams will see one another in the postseason and while Antetokounmpo is having a MVP type of campaign, the Bucks have also improved across the board as the league's best defensive team and being near the top offensively since coach Budenholzer took over.

Plus, with the additions of shooter Nikola Mirotic and veteran guard George Hill, two Celtics killers in past playoff meetings, the Bucks are as deep as they've been since 2001 when they went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers.

However, both teams are down their starting two-guards, at least for the beginning of the series, Marcus Smart (oblique) for the Celtics and Malcolm Brogdon (foot) for the Bucks. Let's take a deeper look at this matchup and what we should expect.

Starting Point-Guards: Kyrie Irving vs Eric Bledsoe

Despite Kyrie Irving shooting only 35.7 percent on two point field goals, he did average 21.7 points and 6.3 assists in three games against the Bucks. Not to mention he was 11-of-24 from behind the arc  too. Irving's numbers did come down slightly from his 23.8 points on 48.7 percent shooting overall and 6.9 assists during the regular season. Eric Bledsoe is an underrated defender when he wants to be, as he had a lot to do with Irving's average coming down a bit, during their meetings.

But let's not forget that overall, especially offensively, Bledsoe has not been great when he plays against the Celtics (11.3 points on 25 percent from 3, 3.3 assists, 2.7 rebounds and over three turnovers vs Boston). Maybe the ghost of "Scary Terry" continues to haunt Bledsoe, but his season output of 15.9 points, 5.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds earned him a four-year/$70 million extension, but he has yet to prove himself in the postseason against a quality opponent.

Advantage: Celtics

Irving has to be aggressive and stay in attack mode in this series to wear down Bledsoe, who will try to pick up his slack offensively in Brogdon's absence. This also means more 'playoff Irving' mixed in with some of the 'playmaking Irving' we saw against the Pacers. If Irving can also get to the free throw line more than the only two times he did in three games vs the Bucks this season (horrible stat), that could mean getting Bledsoe into foul trouble early, thus mentally taking him out of games. Bledsoe has shown in the past that he's easily flustered, just ask Terry Rozier.

Starting Wings: Jaylen Brown & Jayson Tatum vs Khris Middleton & Sterling Brown

With the Bucks already announcing that Brogdon will be out for at least the first two games of the series and possibly Smart making a quicker recovery than expected for the Celtics, defense will be key in these matchups. While Jaylen Brown displayed both great defense and shooting against the Pacers, he also found his stride recently and has been comfortable in any role he's been asked to do this season.

Brown's average of 18 points on 60 percent shooting (from two and three) and 6 rebounds against the Bucks this season is exactly what he's capable of in this series and it will be needed, especially without Smart in the lineup. Sterling Brown is a decent 3-point shooter and rebounder, while he fills in for Brogdon.

We could also see one of two Jayson Tatum's in this series, the 21-year old that decides to just take and hit 3's and not go to the hoop like he did in the regular season against the Bucks. Or, the Tatum that we saw when the Celtics swept the Pacers, a mixture of his inside and out game that made him the team's second leading scorer last series.

Tatum will have his work cut out for him on the defensive end as he'll more than likely have to cover Khris Middleton, the Bucks second All-Star, who's was very solid last year in the postseason vs Boston. Despite struggling a bit in the regular season this year vs the Celtics (17 points on 36.5 percent shooting), he did hit 40 percent of his 3's and grabbed nearly 9 rebounds compared to his 18.3 points on 44 percent overall shooting (37.8 percent from 3) during his lone All-Star season.

Advantage: Celtics

If Brogdon returns at some point in this series, how effective will he be for the Bucks? These four players would be evenly matched if not for the health of Brogdon coming into question. Brown and Tatum have to take advantage and play more like they did in Game 3 and 4 against the Pacers in Indiana, where they both had great performances on both ends of the floor. They need to duplicate this, especially in the first two games in Milwaukee.

Starting Bigs: Al Horford & Aron Baynes vs Giannis Antetokounmpo & Brook Lopez

Al Horford will get to bang down low with league MVP candidate Antekounmpo in a playoff series for the second straight year. The reason Horford came to Boston was to go deep in the postseason and play in the NBA Finals. So far, he's been to the Eastern Conference Finals in back-to-back years in Boston and is looking for a third, but in his way this season is the man they call "The Greek Freak," who is someone he enjoys playing against.

The Celtics will go as far Horford will take them in this series, who will be in charge for the most part of containing Antetokounmpo. His double-double average of 19.5 points and 11 rebounds to go along with 6.5 assists vs the Bucks this season is about what the Celtics will need out of him in the second round. Horford's ability to bring Antetokounmpo out to the three point line, opens up the floor for Irving, Brown, Tatum and even Gordon Hayward to drive the lane.

But, with the addition of Brook Lopez, a major upgrade over Thon Maker from a season ago, also provides the 3-point shooting and rim protection that Horford does. Though not so effective vs Boston in the regular season averaging only 5 points on 30 percent shooting (21.4 percent from 3) to go along with 6 rebounds, don't expect to see Lopez late in the fourth, especially in close games in this series.

Aron Baynes will do what Aron Baynes does, play hard nose defense and give hard fouls when he see's fit. Brad Stevens has already thrown out Semi Ojeleye's name around as someone who will see plenty of minutes to help guard Anteeokoumpo, as he's had some success, though as little as it may be, you take what you can get in trying to limit a beast like "The Greek Freak" to go off. Plus, that's another six fouls as well.

Advantage: Bucks

The only matchup that the Bucks have a clear advantage over the Celtics on paper is the fact that Antetokounmpo will get his 25-30 points on any given night. But, it's how Antetokounmpo gets there is what will be key in slowing down Milwaukee and interrupting their offensive rhythm. Yes, it's easier to say make Antetokoumpo into a jump shooter rather than having him barrel through the lane in two steps for an easy dunk, but Horford won't make it easy either.

If you didn't think Antetokoumpo was already good enough on offense, he's become a much better two-way player, averaging 12.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals a game this season. Oh, lets not forget his 6 assists per-game as well, becoming one of only four players in NBA history to lead his team in points, rebounds and assists in a 60-win season -- the others being Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird and LeBron James, just to put things into perspective.

Bench: Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier & Semi Ojeleye vs Nikola Mirotic, George Hill, Ersan Ilyasova & Pat Connaughton

If Gordon Hayward continues to play the way he did in Game 4 against the Pacers, he's clearly the best out of the eight players in this bunch. Hayward is averaging 48.6 percent shooting from the field on less than nine shot attempts (including 44.4 percent from 3) and hasn't missed a free-throw yet in the postseason. Marcus Morris has recovered from his Game 2 disaster of a shooting performance versus Indiana and Terry Rozier has been solid on the defensive end so far in the playoffs.

Remember when I said Nikola Mirotic and George Hill were Celtics killers, especially in the postseason? Well, expect Mirotic to finish games instead of Brook Lopez, due his deep 3-point shooting (better percentage than Lopez) and rebounding, plus he has more playoff experience (Bulls in 2017, second round with Pelicans in 2018). While, Hill has been to Finals with LeBron and has deep playoff wear and tear during his time in Indiana as well.

Advantage: Celtics

Though this is the deepest roster the Bucks have had in probably many decades, their midseason acquisitions of veteran help with postseason run on their resumés, will be a plus for them and probably win a close game or two. But, the Celtics first three guys off the bench have started for Brad Stevens at one point or another this season and could be on any starting units in the NBA. The difference is all three of the Celtics bench guys can play two-way ball and play it well. Not to mention, they can go off shooting wise at a moment's notice and can mix and match with the current Celtics starters, even late in the fourth quarter.

Let's also not forget about the Celtics "Dream Team" lineup at the end of some games either.

Coaching: Brad Stevens vs Mike Budenholzer

It took what felt like 80-85 percent of the regular season to almost be where the Celtics wanted to be back in October or November; a team clicking on all cylinders, trusting each other and everyone knowing their roles. Though it's been said that it's better late than never, Boston couldn't have picked a better time of the season to be rolling. Stevens hasn't forgotten that the last time he was eliminated in the postseason before making it to conference finals, that last two years, it was at the hands of Budenholzer.

The Bucks have bought in to playing defense, as Budenholzer comes from the school of Gregg Popovich, after being an assistant in San Antonio for many years. Though Stevens out-coached Joe Prunty a season ago, it won't be easy this time around. Budenholzer already owns a series win over Stevens and he has the best player in the series when it comes to Antetokounmpo.

Advantage: Even

It will come down to which ever coach pulls out that joker card that the other was not expecting. For Stevens it could be sticking with a hot hand off the bench late in the fourth quarter. Or, it might be Budenholzer's plan to keep the ball out of the hands of his former All-Star from his Atlanta days; Al Horford. You just never know, but it it will be how the other coach reacts that makes the difference.

Prediction: Celtics in six

The key to this coming to fruition is the Celtics have to win one of the first two games in Milwaukee, preferably Game 1. They can't come back to Boston down 0-2, that's not an option. The Celtics would then take back home-court and roll the dice at TD Garden. While both teams have been well rested, the Bucks have to be really feeling themselves after dominating a less inferior Pistons team that barely made the playoffs and were without a healthy Blake Griffin, to win their first series since 2001. No Bucks player, including Antetokounmpo averaged more than 28 minutes a game in that series against Detroit.

Boston will have to continue to win the rebounding battle like they did against the Pacers and limit their turnovers (over 17 a game vs. Indy) to not give up points to the Bucks in transition, especially to Antetokounmpo in the open floor.

“The Greek Freak" has to play a near perfect game to give Milwaukee a chance to win, while the Celtics don't always have to rely just on Kyrie Irving. They have enough "other guys" that have come up big time and time again. Against the Pacers, Boston had a different leading scorer in every game and finished that series as well as the regular season with six players averaging in double-figures.

Simply put, the Celtics are the deeper team, who are playoff battled tested, more so than the Bucks are.

The Celtics and Bucks have played each other a total of six times in the playoffs, including last year. Boston has won five of those series and they have a 20-14 overall record against Milwaukee (swept C's in 1983 conference semis) during the postseason.

While the Celtics family morns the loss of legend John Havlicek, who passed away this week. We remember "Hondo" as a part of history between both Boston and the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs. It was back in 1974 when these two franchises first met in the postseason and it just so happened to be in the NBA Finals. The Celtics went on to win Game 7 on the road in Milwaukee 102-87, beating Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to capture championship banner No. 12.

Mr. Havlicek averaged 26.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists, to win Finals MVP.

The Celtics will honor John “Hondo” Havlicek when this current series against the Bucks shifts to the TD Garden in Game 3 next Friday night.

You can listen to the rest of the Causeway Street staff predictions in our Celtics vs Bucks series preview below:

Joel Pavón

Picture used courtesy of Getty Images

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