By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
Well, here we are. We knew if the Celtics weren’t going to finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference, they’d have to knock off the top team in the postseason. But we didn’t expect it to be the Milwaukee Bucks, and we didn’t anticipate these stakes this early in the playoffs.
Indiana? Whatever. It was a tune-up. The four games were nice to build confidence, find some sea legs, and iron out the rotation. But from here on out, for as long as it lasts, the Celtics are set to face teams that looked superior to them over the last six months.
Who would have thought the additions of Mike Budenholzer and Brook Lopez would have pushed an (admittedly poorly coached) seventh seed last year to the top position in the East?
Budenholzer ratcheted up the defense and overhauled the offensive attack to one that is heavily reliant on the three-ball. Lopez, who I’ve mostly regarded as a plodding stiff for much of the last decade, contributed to both efforts, and an MVP-caliber campaign from Giannis Antetokounmpo and solid seasons from his supporting cast pushed things to another level. The Bucks went 7-0 out of the gate and held the top spot in the East for the bulk of the season.
Their first regular season loss? To the Celtics. But they won the other two matchups, and now Wisconsinites are saying “We want Boston.”
Man, it’s just like the 80’s again.
This new chapter of Celtics-Bucks doesn’t have the feel of a storied rivalry. But once upon a time, the two franchises met four times in fives years in the postseason. Boston took three out of four, with the only downer a four-game sweep that led to the ouster of Bill Fitch and the acquisition of Dennis Johnson. Those Milwaukee teams boasted a number of “hey, he was great” players that are just now getting their due in Springfield. But Don Nelson, a Hall of Fame coach with Boston ties, could never get them beyond the Eastern Conference Finals.
Fast forward to today, and the two squads are set to duke it out in the rematch of a hotly contested seven-game series from last April, with a trip to the ECF on the line.
We get it. This season is different from last season. We’ve had three head-to-head matchups plus 83 other games since things tipped off in October to prove it. The Celtics go in with a lower seed and a 1-2 regular season record against this team. They’re the hunter, not the hunted, and maybe that’s the position they prefer.
So, what adjustments do they need to make?
Crash the Glass
The Celtics aren’t the strongest rebounding team out there, as they ranked 22nd in the league during the regular season. But they will have to do better in this series. Despite not employing a traditional big man (former double-digit rebounder Lopez now hangs out around the three-point line), Milwaukee ripped down five more rebounds per game than the Celtics, tops in the NBA.
Some of that is due to a frenetic pace that produced 118 points per game (also tops in the league), but the Celtics were hammered on the boards in the three meetings between the teams, 155-128, a figure magnified by Boston’s minus-19 on the glass in the December 21 game without Al Horford, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes.
Boston can’t just hope they’ll nail 24 threes like they did in the first meeting, setting a franchise record in the process). They’ll need to grab boards, both away from the basket and in close proximity to the rim. Committing to the defensive glass will snuff out second chance opportunities for the freakishly gifted Antetokounmpo, who you may be able to stop once, but probably not twice on the same possession.
Interestingly, Boston held their own on the offensive glass (29-28) in the regular season meetings. Hopefully the health and presence of Baynes (in the starting lineup?) will assist both defensively and on the boards.
Get to the Line
Remember that guy on TV with the question mark suit? Ranting about how the government is giving out free money, and if you buy his book, he’ll tell you where to find it? Brad Stevens needs to bring in Matthew Lesko to talk to the Celtics. Free throws are free money, and the Green didn’t attempt nearly enough of them in their regular season matchups (a 17-free throw deficit) with Milwaukee.
Granted, the Bucks were tops in the NBA at defending the rim, so that naturally entices Boston to attack from long range. And as we’ve mentioned, a barrage of threes led to their only win. But ball movement and cuts to and away from the basket result in off-balance defenders that are only human and therefore prone to hacking.
Then, voila, collect some of Matthew Lesko’s sweet moolah at the line.
Slow down Khris Middleton
With Marcus Smart missing (or not entirely himself) for most of last year’s series, the Bucks’ freshly minted All-Star fired away at 60 percent from the field and totaled 25 points per game.
Giannis is probably going to get his, as he coasted to 31 points per game against Boston this season. But Horford and Semi Ojeleye can likely keep him from a volcanic eruption of a performance (say, 35 points or more) and Baynes can help deter him from the cup. If Boston can push him to the perimeter, like they have Joel Embiid in the past, they’ll be in business.
Neutralizing Middleton is a different challenge, as Smart isn’t waiting in a phone booth somewhere to save the day. Boston’s backcourt menace helped limit Middleton to 37 percent shooting in the three regular season meetings. But the task is probably Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown or Gordon Hayward’s now. Middleton can shoot the three, but he’s also an old school player who can get it several different ways. He’ll be a handful.
As for third leading scorer Eric Bledsoe, he posted just 11.3 regular season points per game against the Green. Perhaps he’s still traumatized from last spring. Nikola Mirotic received limited minutes in the first round as he works his way back from any injury. Malcolm Brogdon is reportedly out at least the first two games. When healthy, these other players (and Lopez) can hurt the Celtics, but Boston would probably rather take their chances and hold Middleton to 17 a night rather than 25.
Close out on Threes
Milwaukee attempted the second most threes in the league this season, behind the Rockets, who we all know are allergic to twos. But they were a mere 14th in three-point percentage. The volume will be there, but the Celtics getting hands in the face can help lessen the impact of the long-range assault.
For all the praise Lopez has received this season – and he does draw defenders away from the rim – the Celtics have the right guys to chase him. They just can’t ignore the Greek Freak.
On the other hand, Lopez can’t defend the three to save his life, a matchup worth exploiting.
Keep the Offense Flowing
There were times during the Indiana series when the Celtics looked like the best version of themselves…and others when they looked like the worst. One of Boston’s biggest problems during the regular season was letting opposing teams go on scoring runs. Milwaukee even had one, of the 16-0 variety, when they nearly stampeded the Green out of TD Garden back around Christmas. Granted, Horford is a key cog in the engine, and he was sitting that night.
That game also resulted in one among several team meetings this season, where Kyrie Irving first elected not to disclose the details, then spoke to the media of “selfish play.”
That’s exactly what they’ll need to stay away from. With Gordon Hayward clicking since his March return from a concussion, the Celtics now boast a number of high-level weapons. Ball movement can lead to good shots for those players, which will keep Milwaukee from running up the score in the face of unimaginative possessions that result in unsuccessful isolation jumpers on the other end.
The NBA is a game of wild mood swings, but minimizing them can push the Celtics one step further to their ultimate goal: Playing like the version of themselves many thought had a chance to take the East.
In the Bucks, they’ll have their toughest challenge to date.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.