They say that a series isn’t really a series until a team wins one on the road. By that logic, the NBA Playoffs first round series between the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks must not be a real series yet, but we all know this isn’t the case.
After a nailbiter of a victory in Game 4, the Bucks managed to pull even (2-2) in the series against Boston. With only three games remaining, Boston still has the advantage with a pair of home games sandwiched around the Milwaukee-hosted Game Six. Let’s check in on the main contributors of the series so far, and what themes we might see in the coming week as it reaches it’s thrilling conclusion.
Forwards Lead the Way
For Milwaukee, everything starts with Giannis Antetokounmpo (series per-game: 27.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.5 steals) and Khris Middleton (25.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.3 steals), who have been lights-out for all four games. Giannis has made his living near the rim (eFG%: 64.1%), while Khris has been unconscious everywhere else (eFG%: 73.1%, 3Pt%: 62.5%). The Bucks have been in this series because of how good Giannis and Khris have been.
However, for the Bucks’ third core player (who sometimes seems like a third wheel), Jabari Parker has experienced a fundamental turnaround. His per-game numbers are underwhelming, but his no-shows in Games 1 & 2 are countered by his incredible showings in Games 3 & 4. Most notably, Parker’s resurgence (if we’re calling it that) has been on the defensive end; in the past two games, he’s accumulated 3 steals and 5 (!) blocks. These are not expected production points from Jabari Parker, who looks like he’s fully engaged after accumulating only 24 minutes of playing time in the first two contests.
On Boston’s side, Jaylen Brown (23.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 steals) has come into his own; Brown has been the engine that chugs along and consistently manufactured points for an offense-starved Celtics team thus far. Fellow up-and-comer Jayson Tatum (14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.3 steals) has been more erratic with his impact, but as a rookie has been far more reliable than most would have guessed.
Like Jabari, Boston has a third forward that comes off the bench in Marcus Morris (14.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 37.7% from the field vs. 58.3% from three) who vacillates between taking over the game and taking away his team’s momentum. Morris is a tough-nosed player who seems to thrive on physicality, but his decision-making and shot selection has been suspect so far.
Big Impact from Bigs
The main driver for Boston has been Al Horford (17.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.3 blocks, 1.0 steals), who became the focal point of the Celtics systems after Kyrie Irving went down. Horford is a multifaceted big man who can beat up smaller opponents and blow by bigger ones. He’s shown a particular knack for attacking off the dribble during this series, which few fans may have expected, and has been more than a thorn in Giannis’ side when bodying him up on defense.
The Bucks were smart (lucky?) enough to counter Horford’s stalwart presence with Thon Maker (in 3 games, 7.3 points, 50.0% from three, 3.3 blocks), who entered the Milwaukee rotation after John Henson was deactivated with a back injury. Maker’s mobility has unlocked the Bucks’ super-switch defense, an adjustment that certainly saved this series from becoming a sweep. He has also served as a source of emotional energy for Milwaukee, delivering devastating blocks and back-breaking triples at opportune moments, and egging on the crowd to keep them loud.
Milwaukee has had trouble getting consistent production from their stable of guards, particularly from Eric Bledsoe (11.8 points, 4.3 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 1.0 blocks), their midseason acquisition. Bledsoe has been energetic but struggled to apply his energy in ways that help the team, and his outside shot (27.3% from deep) seems to have left him after a surprising stretch of reliability during the past few months.
Malcolm Brogdon (10.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists) has also had trouble getting into a groove so far, which is not unexpected after an extended absence with a quad injury. The reigning Rookie of the Year still has managed to leave his mark on the series with a pair of huge threes (including a clutch trey in Game 4), but has also dealt with poor accuracy (28.6% from three) and maintaining possession (2.3 turnovers/game, tied for 2nd-most with Middleton despite averaging 10 fewer minutes).
Who? Terry Rozier (16.3 points, 7.0 assists, 1.3 steals), that’s who. In Games 1 & 2, he thoroughly outplayed his Bucks counterparts, and while his overall impact waned in the past two games, he’s still commanding a lot of attention from Milwaukee’s defense and has been using his quickness to create seams for passes and separation for jumpers. Luckily for the Bucks, Rozier’s accuracy has been erratic (combined 5/19 from the field in Games 3 & 4).
Keys for the Rest of the First Round
- Withstanding offensive rebounds. The Bucks’ centers (save for Tyler Zeller) give up a fair amount of size when Aron Baynes or Greg Monroe (both of whom have had a relatively limited impact) are in the game, and it has become a major asset for the Celtics’ otherwise-unimpressive offense. With an average of 13.3 offensive rebounds across 4 games (while corralling only 5.3 of their own), going small means that Milwaukee essentially is allowing Boston a net of eight extended offensive possessions per game. The Bucks have been disruptive enough to avoid disaster, but the Celtics’ will continue to supplement their half-court weaknesses with second-chance points.
- Controlling turnovers. Even more important than second-chance points (which extend existing possessions) are turnovers (which prematurely conclude and introduce brand-new possessions), and the Bucks’ success has largely tracked with their turnover differential. Consider the following:
While four games isn’t a terribly large sample size, it shows the beginnings of a distinct trend: the Milwaukee Bucks are able to maintain stronger position in games where the turnover battle is close, and when they generate more turnovers than they commit, they are dominant. This might seem obvious, but Milwaukee’s success feels like it hinges more on just staying relatively even on turnovers, rather than needing to come out ahead and win that battle outright The team that scores more wins, but the Bucks’ concern needs to be on limiting opportunities for the Celtics to score.
- Maintaining focus and intensity. In Game 1, Bledsoe and Parker were maligned for failing to bring “it,” but once the series returned to Milwaukee, so did their energy. Everybody from Antetokounmpo to Zeller has been flying around on defense, but more importantly they’re moving with purpose on offense. There is no box score stat for being deliberate and maintaining discipline, but the eye test has proven that the Bucks lose when they get sloppy. This is where Matthew Dellavedova has shined and Shane Larkin has struggled; the former is known for keeping steady under pressure while the latter has not truly proven himself in a playoff environment.
- Any more adjustments? Both Brad Stevens and Joe Prunty have seemingly put their cards on the table: Prunty flipped the switch on the Bucks’ defensive switching (perhaps out of necessity, since swapping Henson for Maker wasn’t on purpose), and Stevens countered by going big to punish the Bucks for going small. There simply aren’t that many changes for each coach to make at this point, meaning Milwaukee must...
- Take control before Marcus Smart returns to action. The Bucks have had excellent luck with injuries for the last part of the regular season and the playoffs, while the Celtics lost their best player and his backup. Smart’s return might be the only card Boston has left to play, and since hes tough enough to bother anybody he’s matched up with, winning Game Five might represent both the Bucks’ best chance at fulfilling the #BucksInSix prophecy and their most realistic chance at winning the series on favorable terms.
This is how I see it. If the Bucks win Game Five, the series is theirs for the taking. However, if they falter in Boston on Tuesday night, then I don’t think they’ll be able to succeed in a Game Seven situation on the road. Not yet, at least. Do you agree? What other keys to this series do you see? Which themes did we miss? Let us know in the comments, and Game Five will decide it all tomorrow night.