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.