It was an electrifying night in the NBA on Wednesday, as playoff matchups in both conferences were determined by the last games of the regular season. The Milwaukee Bucks closed their season on a low note, getting blown out by the Philadelphia 76ers with a repulsive final score of 130-95.
However, it was a bittersweet ending for the Bucks, as they landed a preferable first round opponent in the Boston Celtics. Washington stayed in the eighth seed by losing in Orlando, and Miami jumped ahead of Milwaukee by squeaking past Toronto at home.
The Celtics were great all season, but should be an easier matchup because of Kyrie Irving’s season-ending injury. In losing Irving, they will be without their leading scorer as well as a crunch-time closer that is often essential for winning tight games in the playoffs.
Irving adds one more to the list of major injuries that have damaged the Celtics’ title hopes, at least for this season. Gordon Hayward was supposed to play a major role for the team before his gruesome leg accident, and Marcus Smart could miss the entire first round with a thumb problem.
Still, facing the Celtics in a seven-game series is far from a walk in the park. Terry Rozier has filled in for Irving brilliantly, averaging 14.7 points and 5.0 assists per game since he moved into the starting lineup. Moreover, the team has managed to stay above .500 with a 7-6 record, including a convincing win over the Raptors.
“They have injuries, but they’re a good team,” Giannis Antetokounmpo pointed out after Wednesday’s loss. “We’ve got to go [to Boston], play hard, and stay in our system.”
On the other side, the Bucks will compete in the playoffs for a second straight year, something the franchise hasn’t done since 2004. With virtually the same core group as last year, most players already have some playoff experience under their belt.
Many expect the Celtics to be an easy victim, but lately the Bucks haven’t inspired any confidence that they can capitalize on their weakened opponent. Despite having a fully healthy roster for the first time all season on Wednesday, they were still throttled by the 76ers, who didn’t play Joel Embiid or J.J. Redick.
The Bucks have plenty of assets to fill out a starting lineup that, on paper, should scare any team in the East right now. The question has always been whether they can fit those pieces together and be consistent enough to win a playoff series. We’ll look at the matchups for this series by position, and discuss who the overall favorite is.
Point Guard: Eric Bledsoe (MIL) vs. Terry Rozier (BOS)
As mentioned earlier, Rozier has stepped up nicely for the Celtics, and is a skilled three-point shooter who can space the floor. He also has playoff experience as a reserve in previous years. Bledsoe, on the other hand, hasn’t been in the playoffs since five years ago with the Clippers. He had a strong finish to the season, shooting 56.9% from the floor in April, along with a fiery 45.8% on threes and 95.7% on free throws. The Bucks will look for Bledsoe to create offensive looks and lock down Rozier on defense.
Shooting Guard: Tony Snell (MIL) vs. Jaylen Brown (BOS)
It’s questionable whether Snell will even get the start here, but he has started in 59 games for the Bucks this season. Jason Terry has occasionally been tossed in with the starters, and that could easily be the case for the playoffs as well. Snell has been virtually nonexistent in April, averaging just 5.3 points per game. The Bucks will need more offensive production and stronger defense out of him in this series. Brown will be the premier offensive option for the Celtics, having averaged 17.2 points per contest since Irving went down. Brown can slash to the hoop or hurt the Bucks from distance as well.
Small Forward: Khris Middleton (MIL) vs. Jayson Tatum (BOS)
Tatum has had a fantastic season, and would be the Rookie of the Year if not for being part of one of the best rookie classes in recent memory. Similar to Brown, he can work in isolation and create scoring opportunities, and hit spot up threes when he plays off the ball. Middleton, who averaged almost 20 points per game this season, will be the second scoring option and provide much-needed defensive energy for the Bucks. To be fully optimal, he will need to curb his late-game blunders, like the errant inbound pass that cost them a win in Denver.
Power Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL) vs. Al Horford (BOS)
Giannis, coming off another season where he made a huge leap in production, will be the key to the series for the Bucks. Last year, he mostly had his way with the Raptors, averaging 24.8 points and 9.5 rebounds on 53.6% shooting. The Raptors threw a number of defensive specialists like P.J Tucker and DeMarre Carroll at him, but Giannis was consistently able to overpower them for easy buckets. Horford’s mobility combined with his size at 6’10 makes him the ideal option for the Celtics. The veteran has years of playoff experience in Atlanta and Boston, and is the last remaining All-Star on the roster. Horford won’t punish Milwaukee’s bigs in the post as much as centers like Joel Embiid or Hassan Whiteside might, but he can space the floor and pick them apart in other ways.
Center: John Henson (MIL) vs. Aron Baynes (BOS)
Henson is a serviceable big man with a few post moves that can occasionally create offense for the Bucks. However, he can’t take contact in the paint, doesn’t set good screens, and frequently drops passes for easy dunks and lay-ins. Baynes, in his sixth NBA season, has earned a starting job in the Celtics’ rotation by setting excellent screens and producing some offense with his mid-range shot. Baynes probably won’t cause problems for Henson’s thin frame as some other centers do, but if he does the Bucks can put the bulkier Tyler Zeller on him.
Jabari Parker and Malcolm Brogdon will lead the second unit for the Bucks, with Parker being a volume scorer and Brogdon creating plays and spacing the floor. Tyler Zeller will back up Henson at center, and should see significant minutes. Jason Terry, who was instrumental to the Bucks’ comeback in game 6 last year, will make veteran plays. For the Celtics, former Buck Greg Monroe and Marcus Morris will see the most minutes off the bench. Monroe can cause problems offensively, and Morris is another shooter who can create momentum in a hurry.
Coaching: Joe Prunty (MIL) vs. Brad Stevens (BOS)
Brad Stevens has taken a group riddled with injuries all the way to the second seed in the East. He has done so by fully weaponizing the assets on the Celtics’ roster and engineering the league’s best defense. The Celtics’ defensive system will cause problems for the Bucks regardless of the players on the roster. Joe Prunty has failed to make an impact in the wake of Jason Kidd’s mid-season firing, and the Bucks’ defensive system continues to allow high percentage shots for opponents. Coaching is probably the Celtics’ biggest advantage in this series, especially if they don’t get off to a good start. Stevens has shown the ability to adjust, as he did last year when the Celtics went down 0-2 against the eighth seeded Bulls.
In terms of intangibles, the Bucks will have a lot of pressure to win the series given the current condition of the Celtics. The Celtics have home-court advantage, and unlike the Bucks, they haven’t needed rely on player personnel, the area where they are hurt most right now. Giannis has mostly carried the Bucks all season, in spite of the team having no offensive flow and lacking any sort of effective defense. Still, if he gets consistent and predictable contributions from his teammates, they should be able to outplay the Celtics’ backups and earn Milwaukee their first series victory since 2001. My official prediction is Bucks in 6 (please do it for the culture), but if that doesn’t happen, it’ll be Celtics in a hard-fought 7.
All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.