In 2021, the second round of the Eastern Conference NBA playoffs included a series that was dubbed “the real NBA Finals.” Just a year later we again find ourselves in a similar place, as the Milwaukee Bucks (last year’s reigning champions) face off against the Boston Celtics (a late-charging Finals favorite). This matchup figures to be one of the most competitive in the playoffs thus far, though a major factor on Milwaukee’s side is already limited by injury. The major difference this time around is that the Bucks already once achieved their ultimate goal – winning the title – while these Boston Celtics are still trying to break through and get to the final round with their current group. Will that matter?
the scheduling gods have spoken pic.twitter.com/KMpdQo5KsB— John Hollinger (@johnhollinger) April 28, 2022
Boston obviously has a much more extensive history in the postseason than Milwaukee does, but in the current era these teams have crossed paths before. Going back to the first round in 2018, the Celtics triumphed in 7 games in the final stanza of the pre-Budenholzer Era Bucks. Milwaukee played hard and used tough shot-making to extend the series, but they couldn’t keep Boston off the boards and the Bucks simply didn’t have enough talent flanking Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. One lasting image of that series is the Delly Floop, which is one of the most fun plays from that time in Bucks history.
One year later, the Bucks and Celtics met again, this time in the second round of the playoffs. Boston had added Kyrie Irving to their young core and put on a Game 1 beatdown against the league-leading Bucks...and then proceeded to drop the next four straight contests as Kyrie shot them out of the series and Milwaukee moved on to the Eastern Conference Finals.
That was a fun one. Milwaukee, of course, faltered against the eventual champion Toronto Raptors that year, and the Bucks and Celtics did not face off in the Orlando bubble in 2020 or in the most recent postseason. Each team has evolved over that time, adding new contributors and configuring new approaches. Over the last four regular seasons, Milwaukee has a 7-6 record against Boston, which mirrors the split of their past two playoff showdowns. For the 2021-22 season, the Bucks and Celtics are an even 2-2:
- November 12: Bucks lose in overtime, 122-113
- December 13: Bucks lose 117-103
- December 25: Bucks pull off a comeback and win 117-113
- April 7: Bucks stand strong and win 127-121
One thing is certain: these teams each boast a strong claim to have the advantage over the other (just based on the results), and the series will be hard-fought and could hinge on one of the NBA’s great equalizers: health.
The left MCL injury of Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton is a Grade 2 sprain and he is expected to miss the entire second-round series vs. Celtics, sources tell @TheAthletic @Stadium. The recovery of Grade 2 MCL places a potential Conference Finals in jeopardy for him as well.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) April 28, 2022
One Big Question: Can Milwaukee win without Khris Middleton?
Boston’s fanbase was shaken when rising star Robert Williams was sidelined with a meniscus tear a few weeks before the playoffs were set to begin. As a lynchpin in their league-leading defense, Time Lord’s surgery and subsequent absence was a major blow to the Celtics’ hopes...but he came back far earlier than expected and returned to action against the Brooklyn Nets. Boston, by all indications, dodged a major bullet with Williams avoiding major injury. He’s not all the way back to his normal self, but with Game 1 of this series coming up on Sunday, there’s enough time to ramp up.
Meanwhile in Milwaukee, a similar story played out with remarkably worse timing. Khris Middleton suffered a sprained MCL in Game 2 of the Bulls series, and as of April 21 was set to be “reevaluated” in two weeks. We originally thought it was possible, and now have it confirmed that Khris can’t make it back for any games against the Celtics.
To take a positive angle on the issue, the Bucks have proven twice in as many years that they can respond as a unit when one of their main guys goes down. Milwaukee blasted the Bulls in back-to-back-to-back games following Middleton’s injury, just like they closed out the Atlanta Hawks in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals following the knee hyperextension suffered by Giannis Antetokounmpo. But finishing a series off is much different than starting one fresh, and starting a series against Boston without Middleton’s production puts the Bucks in an early hole.
As Dan Devine of The Ringer put it last week,
“That’s the beauty of [Khris] Middleton: His game might lack pizzazz, but he gives Bud 36-to-42 minutes of “I don’t have to worry about that” on both ends of the floor.”
Over a longer timeframe, the Bucks might have options to try and fill in for Khris. Between Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton, and Wes Matthews, Mike Budenholzer could construct a rotation that shores up the wing positions while Middleton recovers. But that’s not where the Bucks are; there are (at most) seven opportunities to try and win four times, and pulling that off without an All Star forward (and notorious Celtics Killer to boot) is a tall task.
In my view, based on what we know today, beating these Celtics is going to require more than a reassignment of wing minutes or some hot shooting from reserves. Besting Boston might just need Giannis to reach the absolute pinnacle of his potential, exceeding even his performance in last year’s NBA Finals, to push the Bucks ahead. Lucky for us...if anyone is capable of such a feat, it’s the Greek Freak.
Four Factors Breakdown
Let’s take a look at the basic offensive and defensive principles for both of these teams from their four factors from Cleaning The Glass.
Bucks Celtics Offensive 4 Factors
When these teams have the ball, they performed relatively similarly over the course of the regular season. Milwaukee had a slightly more-efficient offense, partially due to the additional workload handled by Bobby Portis (an offense-first center) in the absence of Brook Lopez (who is also a bucket, but isn’t as renowned for his scoring any longer). More likely, though, is that the Bucks generally take better shots than the Celtics; when accounting for league average rates across all shot locations, Boston’s profile dips below average. Per Cleaning The Glass, their Location Effective Field Goal percentage ranked 19th overall (53.7%), which means that all year long the Celtics made more shots than would otherwise be expected, based on the quality of the look. The Bucks had a similar problem; their overall eFG% was significantly higher than their Location eFG% (55.1% vs. 53.9%), meaning that both teams are at risk of suffering a shooting regression when playing a tough defense...like each other. Speaking of defense...
Bucks Celtics Defensive 4 Factors
Once the calendar flipped, Boston’s defense found its stride and the Celtics became the epitome of “clamps.” Allowing only 106.9 points per 100 possessions, opponents straight up failed to score efficiently versus Boston, and their eFG% allowed speaks to how well they contested attempts. The Celtics also forced opponents into taking worse shots; their location eFG% allowed was 52.7%, only marginal higher than their actual eFG% (50.4%, 1st in the NBA) allowed. The Bucks, infamously, did not live up to this standard over the year, demonstrating the level of defensive value provided by the finally-healthy Brook Lopez. However, Milwaukee continued their years-long trend of avoiding committing fouls; opponents had a free throw rate of only 16.4, the second-lowest mark in the league. In a physical environment with a lot of pressure, referees may be more likely to “let them play,” meaning Boston may be less able to manufacture points at the foul line. The Celtics also allow offensive rebounds at around a league-average rate, whereas the Bucks are still excellent at limiting these second chances.
All in all, it’s easy to say that Boston has a distinct advantage, but there are signs that this could not hold up in the playoffs.
Nevertheless, the Bucks are in a tough spot. Missing Middleton means that everybody else needs to pitch in and do a little bit more of everything, from defending the wing to getting buckets and everything in between. Not to be overlooked, reserve point guard George Hill also remains “out for a bit” with his abdominal strain, taking away a reliable rotation member for the foreseeable future. He may return for this series, but without knowing more about his status, we can’t say now that we can expect him at the outset.
So who’s left? Obviously Giannis and Jrue Holiday will be logging major minutes, as their two-way play will be vital. That was the case even before Khris went down. Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis will need to lock down the center position; with Robert Williams back in action alongside Al Horford and Daniel Theis, Boston is able to use their varied skill sets in different ways and combinations. The biggest concern is on the wing, where Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum present a dynamic challenge that feels nearly impossible to fully contain. Middleton offers a certain level of reliability that the rest of Milwaukee’s active wing corps (Wes Matthews, Grayson Allen, Pat Connaugton, and Jevon Carter) simply don’t have.
There also has to be some acknowledgement of Boston’s massive improvement on defense, where Ime Udoka deserves a ton of credit for taking the Celtics’ collection of talented players and turning them into a league-best unit. Marcus Smart’s manufactured campaign for Defensive Player of the Year was almost as corny as his celebration of the award, but he deserves his spot on the All-Defense First Team, as well as the recognition that he’s going to cause problems. Under the radar is guard Derrick White, acquired midseason from San Antonio and fits this team like a glove. Much like when the Bulls were full-strength earlier in the season, Boston boasts an impressive point-of-attack defense that’s filled with switchable defenders, and Williams’ return boosts their mobility and rim protection as well.
At least to start, this is what I expect the Milwaukee minutes distribution to look like, broken up between the guards, forwards, and bigs.
- Jrue Holiday: 40 minutes
- Grayson Allen: 30 minutes
- Jevon Carter (or George Hill, if healthy): 16 minutes
- Giannis Antetokounmpo: 40 minutes
- Wes Matthews: 26 minutes
- Pat Connaughton: 30 minutes
- Brook Lopez: 28 minutes
- Bobby Portis: 30 minutes
The minutes distribution matters less than the actual matchups; determining who lines up with who will largely decide the amount of playing time. For example, last year against the Brooklyn Nets, Bobby Portis was removed from the rotation almost entirely, but he returned against the Atlanta Hawks, in no small part because there was a place on the floor for him against Atlanta...and not a clear one against Brooklyn. At the same time, the Khris-less Bucks really only have eight worthy rotation-level players for a playoff series, with Jevon Carter and Schrödinger’s George Hill (is he healthy or not?) being the only ones on the proverbial bubble.
So who plays who? Which Buck defends which Celtic, and how does that shape the starting lineup? If we presume that Jrue and Wes take on the Tatum/Brown assignment, that leaves Giannis, Bobby, and Brook to cover Horford, Smart, and Theis. Boston was a league-average three-point shooting team this season (35.6% on a 3PAr of 0.425, which was the eighth-highest rate), and these three players are all right around average shooters; Theis leads this trio at 35.7%, while both Horford and Smart are around 33%. Milwaukee has been historically all-too happy to allow “meh” shooters to take open threes, gambling that they’ll miss more than they make and the math tilts the game in the Bucks’ favor. You could then put Giannis on Smart to help off him, and then have Brook and Bobby split the duties between Horford and Theis. If Robert Williams joins the starting lineup instead, or the Celtics downsize and go with Derrick White, then Milwaukee will have to adjust and potentially move Bobby Portis back to the bench in favor of either Grayson or Pat.
We’ve heard a lot about how the Bucks allegedly “ducked” Brooklyn by resting their starters in Game 82 of the regular season. We’ll probably hear more about this…despite it being a standard practice under Coach Bud, and how the Bucks clearly accepted the challenge posed by last year’s Miami Heat (exorcising some demons in the process). We’ve also heard a lot about how the Celtics haven’t ducked anybody, how they don’t run away from anything. We’ll hear more about that as well; a team with these ambitions should carry themselves with this level of confidence. Also, the Celtics are really good, and they’re mostly healthy save for Williams’ return from meniscus surgery and some hamstring issues with Jaylen Brown.
Ime Udoka said Jaylen Brown is still expected to play in Game 1, despite the hamstring tightness.— Jay King (@ByJayKing) April 28, 2022
No matter what way you look at it, these teams are now on a collision course and are in a position to show whether they simply talk the talk, or actually walk the walk. The Bucks have been down this path before, and made it through to the other side. The Celtics have won playoff series, some of them tough ones, but since 2017 (when the trio of Tatum, Brown, and Smart first started playing together) they’ve made to the Conference Finals twice but never made it further. By no means is that meant as a slight; making it to the penultimate round is a successful campaign by any standard! But this series is when the championship mettle is supposed to shine through; we know that Milwaukee has it…does Boston? We’re going to find out.
With all due respect to Jayson Tatum (who earned his way into the second tier of MVP candidates), Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the best player on the court in this series. In the playoffs, that matters a great deal. If Giannis is at his best in this matchup, there’s very little the Celtics will be able to do to stop him. They have a fantastic defense, and have a number of players to put in his way (Horford, Theis, Robert Williams, Grant Williams, and most likely to drive us all crazy, Marcus Smart). Giannis’ evolution into a post scorer, free throw maker, and wall-dismantling facilitator while still remaining the league’s premier transition presence, help side havoc-wreaker, and rim-rattling finisher is a certain sort of inevitability that no defense can withstand.
Middleton being out puts an incredible amount of pressure on Jrue Holiday and the rest of Milwaukee’s supporting cast to perform. But you know who is healthy? Giannis (despite suffering a minor wrist injury on Wednesday), and Bobby Portis (despite earning the Bobby Bifocals nickname with an eye injury), and Brook Lopez (despite missing most of the season). Those three players stand 6’11” or greater, and if we learned anything on the Bucks’ trip to the 2021 NBA Finals, it’s that size matters. For reference, the Celtics’ tallest player is the 7’2” Luke Kornet (who played in 12 games and did not appear in the playoffs), and after that it’s Al Horford at 6’9”. The Bucks’ functional size is an inherent advantage that few other teams can counter, and it affects how much (or how little, on defense) the ball goes into the rim from close range. Milwaukee may not have anyone (sans Middleton) who can cover Tatum…but who in the world is supposed to cover Giannis?
Boston may very well win this series, and it may very well be a team-changing experience, much like winning in the Eastern Conference Semifinals was transformational for Milwaukee one year ago. There are a ton of factors that would suggest that the scales should be tipping in the Celtics’ favor…but I don’t see it. I see Milwaukee swamping Boston with functional size, shutting off the rim and conceding contested midrange looks and above-the-break threes from “meh” shooters. I see Milwaukee moving with purpose on offense, filling the right gaps and taking the right shots to loosen up whatever shell Boston produces to try and keep Giannis from the paint. I see Giannis imposing his will on the game, refusing to let uncalled contact or certain embellishments get in the way of doing what he does: putting his team in a position to win.
Crow all you want about not running from a challenge. You can’t run from this.
Prediction: Bucks in six.
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