What many ultimately predicted from this series indeed came to fruition, if for some fits and starts in an uninspiring first couple of games. Going W-L-W-W-W with two wins on the road, Milwaukee now prepares for their second-round matchup with 2-seeded Boston, but let’s first take stock of a successful initial round. Obviously, the lasting effect of these contests will be Khris Middleton’s sprained MCL, which is likely to keep him out until the Eastern Conference Finals... IF the Bucks can get there. However, there were massive defensive positives in this round that bode well for the coming action. Individually, a few key role players were pretty steady, while others upped their games from the duds they laid at the series’ onset.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: A
5 GP, 33.6 MPG, .568/.154/.683, 28.6 PPG, 13.4 RPG, 6.2 APG, 3.6 TPG, 0.2 SPG, 1.4 BPG
This is the kind of effort from Giannis which may just get them past the Celtics, even with a hurt Middleton. For a minute or two in Game 5’s first half, he had scored one fewer point than the 20 Chicago managed as a team. Probably his most efficient night since his 50-burger back in February against Indiana, he hit 11 of his first 12 attempts from the field to go with 11 of 14 free throws, steadily upping his percentage at the line from 55% and 61% in the first two games. Without much effort, Giannis wasn’t only the best player in the series, but he didn’t need to rack up tons of minutes to exert the dominance needed to crush Chicago after Game 2. It was about the easiest I’ve seen him dominate an opponent in the playoffs. Maybe he wasn’t at his level-best with the ball in his hands during Game 1, but as his assist numbers skyrocketed and turnovers dropped, I’m led to believe he recalled how he needs to play to win playoff rounds just as he did midway through last summer’s Nets series.
Khris Middleton: B
2 GP, 35.8 MPG, .417/.429/1.000, 14.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 7.0 APG, 5.5 TPG, 1.5 SPG, 0.0 BPG
Not only does Middleton’s injury threaten both the Bucks’ prospects, but it came at a moment when he began sinking jumpers (especially from deep) and rebounding from a lost Game 1. It’s not hard to imagine that had he not slipped heading to the rim, with his resurgence the Bucks would have made a second-half comeback in Game 2, and the stormy attitudes among a segment of Bucks fans after that loss wouldn’t have been nearly as dark.
Jrue Holiday: B+
5 GP, 36.0 MPG, .407/.345/.600, 16.4 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 6.8 APG, 4.0 TPG, 0.8 SPG, 0.4 BPG
Holiday is the best example of a Buck whose improvements were key in both getting this series back on track and then winning it. Games 1 and 2 weren’t terrible with nearly identical 15-6-6 efforts on inefficient shooting, but the 5 turnovers he average in those two outings palpably hurt the Bucks’ chances at winning. Game 5 was maybe his worst night of the series from a shooting and ball-protection standpoint, but without his sublime Game 4 the Bucks may not have blown the Bulls out that evening. Defensively, however, he was sensational from start to finish. Primarily on Zach LaVine and switching onto DeMar DeRozan with Wesley Matthews, he helped hold the former under 20 PPG across LaVine’s four games, including a pretty bad Game 1. While LaVine was not awful, he wasn’t much of a factor at all for Chicago, and Holiday gets the lion’s share of credit for it.
Brook Lopez: A
5 GP, 28.8 MPG, .500/.333/.917, 13.2 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 0.8 APG, 1.0 TPG, 0.4 SPG, 1.6 BPG
Another Bull who disappointed a bit—particularly in Games 1 and 4—was Nikola Vučević, thanks to the stalwart rim protection of both Lopez and Giannis. Vooch had some success two years ago as a member of Orlando in their first-round loss against Milwaukee, taking advantage of Lopez’s trademark zone-dropping by nailing pick-and-pop triples. Though the attempts were nearly at the same volume this year, he couldn’t connect nearly as much, but unlike in 2020, he had fewer attempts inside. Like LaVine, Vučević wasn’t really a factor in this series and Lopez gets those plaudits. Offensively, Lopez had two very productive nights of his own in Games 1 and 2, plus two other solid nights sandwiching a vacant Game 4.
Wesley Matthews: A
5 GP, 27.8 MPG, .480/.476/.000, 6.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.6 APG, 0.6 TPG, 1.0 SPG, 0.4 BPG
As mentioned above, DeMar DeRozan didn’t give the Bucks any trouble outside of a 41-point Game 4 thanks to Matthews. In Games 3 and 5, DeRozan got to the line just 5 and 2 times respectively; holding the Bulls star to 6 free throw attempts per game is the kind of defensive effort the Bucks needed from their wing stopper, who averaged only 2.4 personals in the fourth-most minutes on the roster. What’s more, he managed to find plenty of shots from behind the three-point line (4.2 3PA/game) and knocked them down at a great clip. He has a similar task ahead of him with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown: if he can maintain such a great mix of excellent on-ball defense with great outside shooting, Milwaukee’s chances of surviving a healthy Boston roster within seven games rise.
Grayson Allen: A+
5 GP, 24.1 MPG, .600/.583/.750, 13.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 0.4 APG, 1.4 TPG, 1.0 SPG, 0.4 BPG
Impervious to boos and seemingly unable to miss (14/20 in Games 3–5) from downtown, Allen wasn’t simply a deadeye marksman off the bench, incinerating Chicago’s chances after the initial series split: he became more of a creator in Middleton’s absence. With the Bucks’ mediocre-at-best half-court offense prior to Game 3 in danger of bogging down even more without one of their primary weapons, Allen took it on himself to slice through the Bulls’ perimeter and went 7/10 at the rim across the final three contests. He even took a ride on Middleton’s Tough Shot Express, splashing in 2/3 shots between the restricted area and the arc. Keeping up this diversity of shot selection and efficiency will go a long way towards replacing Middleton’s production, even if Allen doesn’t hit 70% of his threes.
Bobby Portis: A-
5 GP, 23.8 MPG, .449/.360/.556, 11.6 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 0.8 APG, 1.4 TPG, 0.2 SPG, 0.2 BPG
Another question worth asking from this series: if Portis donned his goggles preemptively before Game 2, thus preventing his eye abrasion and early exit after just 6 minutes, do the Bucks win that one? He snapped back with his best night of the round in Game 3 on his way to averaging a double-double on solid efficiency. The legend of Bobby Bifocals figures to grow with every bucket; while he mirrored the game-to-game progression of Holiday and Connaughton, like those two he definitely has further room for upward growth in terms of his percentages.
Pat Connaughton: B
5 GP, 22.5 MPG, .389/.355/1.000, 8.4 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.6 TPG, 0.4 SPG, 0.4 BPG
It wasn’t hard to see that Connaughton was due for a big shooting night at some juncture, and he certainly came through with one of his signature high-volume efforts (6/9 on threes) in Game 5. Again, he was pretty absent until Game 3, but before his outside shot came back he took a page out of Allen’s book by cutting to the rim for a few easy lay-ins. Though the sledding will obviously be tougher now that the Bulls’ soft interior is in the rearview, I wouldn’t mind him trying that several more times as he keeps getting minutes, regardless of how well he shoots the three-ball. Mainly, the hope is that his production continues trending upward towards its heights from last summer, so he and Allen can provide some semblance of the offense Milwaukee will lack without Middleton.
Jevon Carter: B
5 GP, 15.8 MPG, .417/.400/.000, 2.4 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.4 TPG, 1.2 SPG, 0.0 BPG
Moving from the ninth to eighth man role and earnestly into the rotation after the Middleton injury, Carter also had some fine on-ball moments on Chicago’s backcourt. Surprisingly, he flashed a fun little midrange game in Game 5 to boot. With the taller and longer George Hill’s return looking likely in the next round, we may not see much of Carter going forward, but he showed this round that he’s a quality depth piece who won’t miss a beat if needed.
Mike Budenholzer: A
4-1 W-L, 109.4 ORtg (12th), 94.9 DRtg (1st), 14.5 NetRtg (1st)
Milwaukee’s defensive improvement from the 2020–21 regular season to the 2021 postseason (a 111.4 DRtg that ranked 10th to 107.6 and 1st) is one of the key reasons they won the title, so I’m not surprised too much by this and I expected it. Once again, Bud uses the sets that his squad worked the rough edges off of during the preceding 82 games more sparingly once the playoffs roll around in favor of the effective base drop-zone scheme, especially when Lopez plays. Still, with more defensive weapons like a locked-in Matthews at his disposal and a better pick-and-roll scheme when Portis is on the floor, it’s possible the Bucks will be even better this title run than last. Such a ridiculously low defensive rating is bound to jump against the more dangerous Celtics, but it’s hard not to be optimistic about how Bud has that machinery churning right now. With a bit better shooting and continued smart decision-making from Giannis in Bud’s halfcourt sets, the offense could catch up.
Incomplete: Serge Ibaka (4 GP, 19 MIN), Thanasis Antetokounmpo (3 GP, 13 MIN), Jordan Nwora (3 GP, 13 MIN), Rayjon Tucker (3 GP, 12 MIN), Luca Vildoza (2 GP, 10 MIN), George Hill (injured), Sandro Mamukelashvili (ineligible), Lindell Wigginton (ineligible)
It’s pretty clear who needs to perform at the tops of their individual games to take out a formidable Celtics team. As good as Giannis was against Chicago, it’s likely he needs to kick into a higher gear befitting of the best player on earth: one who is plainly and obviously better than Kevin Durant, who Boston famously stymied in the first round. Holiday and Matthews will likely draw the assignments on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown; they cannot afford any defensive slippage. Lopez must be a reliable offensive force; between him and Portis, they need to leverage Milwaukee’s size advantage down low, including on the offensive boards. One of Allen and Connaughton need to provide some semblance of the shot creation that Middleton normally does, but just as importantly, both have to shoot well from distance. If there’s ever a series where the Bucks don’t struggle with the three ball, this needs to be it. That seems like a lot that needs to go right, but as we recall from last year’s second round victory over the Nets, the Bucks do win even if not everything goes their way.
How would you grade the Bucks’ performance in the first round?
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What are your individual grades? Let me know in the comments below.