Boston Celtics

Robert Williams III #44 of the Boston Celtics dunks the ball against the Brooklyn Nets in the first half at Barclays Center on February 08, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

There was a time – not too long ago – when the Boston Celtics were under .500. As recently as a couple of weeks back, they were considered underdogs of a first round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets. But heading into the second round – winners of 30 of their last 36 basketball games, sweeping those Nets in the process – they’re suddenly more than a play for Vegas sharps; they’re NBA title favorites.

That said, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks are blocking the doorway.

The Bucks aren’t the same team that took the title last year. While you could argue Brook Lopez has had his moments since a return from injury and Grayson Allen has picked up the slack following P.J. Tucker’s departure, a recent MCL sprain to the dynamic Khris Middleton will be a key factor. Middleton has been a Celtics assassin over the years, going back to when he averaged 25 points in a seven-game first round loss to the Green back in 2018. Those young Bucks have grown into a powerhouse since, and Middleton’s blend of skills will be sorely missed.

Not that it slowed them against the Bulls. Milwaukee steamrolled Chicago by an average of 19 points per contest. Five players averaged double figures, with perennial MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo posting nearly 30 points per game.

Matchups are everything in the postseason, and unfortunately, we can’t learn much from previous encounters. Denis Schroeder led Boston with 38 points in an early-season win as Giannis sat, while the Bucks took the last meeting with Jayson Tatum and Al Horford stapled to the bench. The teams split two December matchups, back before the Celtics started their second half run.

The main narrative features Tatum and Antetokounmpo. It’s unbelievable that Tatum’s star continues to rise after all these years, but his recent performance has pushed the fifth-year forward into Giannis’ orbit as one of the finest two-way players in the game. Just as the Celtics will load up defensively on the Greek Freak, you can expect the Bucks to throw the kitchen sink at Tatum.

With Tatum navigating the gauntlet and the spotlight on, multiple Celtics will have to play big to get the team back to the Eastern Conference Finals for another crack at glory.

  • Jaylen Brown

    BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 13: Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics drives to the hoop the past Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks during a game at TD Garden on December 13, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

    BOSTON, MA – DECEMBER 13: Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics drives to the hoop the past Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks during a game at TD Garden on December 13, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

    Boston’s other All-Star tweaked a hamstring in Game 4 against the Nets. Despite the ailment, he logged 38 minutes, totaling 22 points and eight boards. The sweep gave Brown nearly a week to get ready for the second round, and coach Ime Udoka expects him to play in Game 1.

    Brown looked confident driving and shooting the ball against the Nets. He had some big fourth quarter moments, handed out more than four assists per game and had as meany steals (ten) as turnovers for the series. But the Milwaukee experience will be different. Coach Mike Budenholzer’s entire scheme is built around keeping opponents out of the paint, which will test Brown’s decision-making and skills as a distributor.

    While Giannis, Lopez and Jrue Holiday are considered plus defenders, the Bucks’ scheme can be beaten. They allowed the most threes of any team in the NBA and the sixth-most assists. The Celtics will just have to move the ball like mad and shoot the lights out.

    Brown’s performance as an offensive fulcrum will be key to this effort.

  • Robert Williams III

    Robert Williams III #44 of the Boston Celtics dunks in the third quarter as Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets defends during Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs against the Boston Celtics at Barclays Center on April 25, 2022 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

    Robert Williams III #44 of the Boston Celtics dunks in the third quarter as Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets defends during Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs against the Boston Celtics at Barclays Center on April 25, 2022 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

    Al Horford and Daniel Theis did a fine job in the Brooklyn series. While Horford in particular has a few more tricks in his offensive bag than the lob-happy Williams, the duo proved to be a reasonable facsimile of the Texas A&M product from a man-to-man defense and rebounding standpoint.

    But there’s a considerable gap in athleticism, as well as reams of data that suggest the C’s were at their best defensively with a healthy Timelord this season.

    Williams will be asked to help on Giannis drives (akin to being asked to delay a steamroller) and snuff out Milwaukee possessions by crashing the glass against the league’s second-best rebounding unit. Having Williams as a backstop can also help the Celtics close out on Milwaukee’s three-point shooters (fourth in attempts, fifth in percentage during the regular season).

    He’ll also have to stay out of foul trouble, all while working his way back into form following meniscus surgery. It’s a tall task on a big stage.

  • Derrick White

    Derrick White.

    Apr 7, 2022; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Boston Celtics guard Derrick White (9) grabs a rebound in the 1st quarter during game against the Milwaukee Bucks at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

    White wasn’t asked to do much offensively against Brooklyn as Marcus Smart averaged more than 16 points per game and even Payton Pritchard outscored Boston’s big trade deadline acquisition. But with Smart sure to be hounded by Holiday, the former Spur might be counted upon to shred Milwaukee’s reserves in this series.

    White was hot from three-point land to close the season (nearly 49 percent over the last nine games), but he made just 1-of-11 attempts from deep in the first round.

    His defense will be helpful in stifling the Bucks’ secondary options, who will be asked to do more with Middleton out. If he can knock down some consistent looks on the other end, it could be lights-out for Milwaukee.

    Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.