Game 1 Team Totals: Celtics 108.3, Bucks 116.3
Season Series: 2-1 Bucks
Season Team Net Ratings: Celtics +4.2 (6th), Bucks +8.6 (1st)
Current Injuries: Marcus Smart (oblique, doubtful for series), Guerschon Yabusele (back, day-to-day), Malcolm Brogdon (heel, questionable for series), Pau Gasol (ankle, doubtful for series), Donte DiVincenzo (heel, out for season)
It’s a rematch of last postseason when the Celtics beat the Bucks in seven during the first round. Last year, the Celtics didn’t have Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward, but of course this isn’t the same Bucks team with system changes from coach Mike Budenholzer helping Milwaukee become one of the more well-rounded teams in the past few seasons. Plus, the addition of Brook Lopez has been a game-changer while they added some depth in Nikola Mirotic, Ersan Ilyasova, George Hill and others. These two teams are the only squads to pull off sweeps with the Celtics posting a +7.8 net rating on the Pacers and the Bucks posting an absurd +23.5 net rating against the Pistons over their four games. That +23.5 net rating in the first round is the second best this decade, trailing the 2017 Spurs by just 0.4. Sure, the Pistons are not the Celtics, but the No. 1 seed is playing well.
In the last round vs. Detroit, just about every lineup for the Bucks put in work with all eight most-used lineups being in the positive for net rating, including the starters putting up a +39.5 net rating in 41 minutes (Eric Bledsoe, Sterling Brown, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez) and the second most-used lineup dropped a +54.3 in 17 minutes (George Hill, Pat Connaughton, Middleton, Ersan Ilyasova, Lopez). However, the Bucks starters were thumped in 36 minutes against the Celtics this season, posting just a -27.7 net rating in 36 minutes (Malcolm Brogdon instead of Sterling Brown, though).
Despite the starters getting worked against the Celtics this season, Giannis was still able to post a +1.4 net rating, averaging 31.0 points, 10.7 boards, 4.3 boards, 4.0 turnovers, 1.7 blocks and 1.3 steals over 35.4 minutes per game. As you’d expect, coach Brad Stevens’ game plan will start with defending the favorite for MVP. Last year in the playoffs, Stevens got creative with Semi Ojeleye guarding Giannis the most per game, but this time it figures to be Al Horford guarding the Greek Freak. Per the NBA matchup data, Horford led the Celtics in possessions against Giannis per game with GA scoring 16 points with three dimes in 41 possessions. Antetokounmpo basically shredded everyone else who saw double-digit possessions per game this season, scoring 21 points on 28 possessions against Marcus Morris and 19 points in 40 possessions against Ojeleye.
Against the Celtics this year, Giannis had a 32.4 usage rate, which is up from his 31.0 on the season. The Celtics were on par at limiting Giannis at the rim, allowing just 7.6 makes at the rim per game, which is just a shade down from 7.8 on the whole season. Antetokounmpo only had three makes outside of the paint, but he also went to the line 12.7 times vs. Boston (9.5 on the season). Giannis is also coming off a 34.6 usage rate against the Pistons in the first round, so he should be extremely busy while he’s out there with huge minutes headed his way.
Eric Bledsoe was a target for the Celtics last year in the first round both on the court and off the court with troll jobs of Drew Bledsoe jerseys from Terry Rozier. Bledsoe also had a team-worst net rating against the Celtics this year at just -17.6, averaging 11.3 points, 2.7 boards, 3.3dimes, 3.0 turnovers, 0.7 steals and 0.7 treys in 31.4 minutes per game. However, Bledsoe is coming off a strong first round this time with averages of 19.3 points, 4.0 boards, 5.3 dimes, 2.0 steals and 1.5 treys on a 60.3 TS% and a 25.1 usage rate.
Over the regular season, Kyrie Irving completely shut down Bled, allowing just seven points on 73 possessions. Scary Terry was stout against Bledsoe with just eight points allowed over 41 possessions this season, as well. Bledsoe struggled at the rim against Boston, and he scored just six points outside of the paint -- two threes, 0-of-1 on mid-range. He saw his season usage rate fall from 22.3 to 18.3 against the Celtics, and the name of the game will have to be efficiency. Plus, Coach Bud may want him moving more on offense to wear Kyrie down a bit.
Like Bledsoe, Khris Middleton didn’t play well against the Celtics this season with just a -11.4 net rating, averaging just 17.3 points, 8.7 boards, 4.7 dimes, 1.3 steals and 3.3 treys on a paltry 48.0 TS%. Although, it was Marcus Smart who guarded Midleton more than anyone else, allowing 14 points on 49 possessions. It’ll likely be Jayson Tatum on Middleton, and the second-year forward was even better on Middleton, allowing just three points on 44 possessions. Middleton was brutal inside the arc against Boston, making just 9-of-27 (33.3%) of his twos. Middleton had been shooting better on twos coming into this series, but his main contribution will be knocking down open treys as Tatum helps combat the Bucks’ penetration from Giannis and others.
Brook Lopez was whisper quiet against the Celtics this season, averaging just 5.0 points, 6.0 boards, 0.7 assists, 2.0 blocks, 0.3 steals and 1.0 treys on 37.5 TS% and a 12.8 usage rate. Both Al Horford, Aron Baynes, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Morris kept him in check with a combined four points on 101 possessions. With Horford likely on Giannis, it figures to be Baynes on Bro-Lo -- Baynes didn’t allow any points on just 15 possessions. The Celtics interior defense kept Lopez out of the paint with just three two-point makes while he made just 3-of-14 (21.4%) from beyond the arc. His defense will be key as the backbone on help defense, but his production on the stat sheet may not be there as much as the others.
Besides the core four of Giannis, Bledsoe, Middleton and Lopez, it should be a mixture of secondary players chipping in against Boston. In the series against the Pistons, Sterling Brown was by far the most-used No. 5 option in the first unit, playing 41 of the 52 minutes next to the main four Bucks. Pat Connaughton was a distant second at seven minutes while George Hill and Nikola Mirotic came in at two minutes. On the year, it was obviously Malcolm Brogdon with 597 minutes next to the other four at 994 minutes with Brown at 130, Connaughton at 68, Snell at 67, Ersan Ilyasova at 49, and Nikola Mirotic at 40. Brown also saw just six minutes next to the main four guys against the Celtics this year, but he should be considered the heavy favorite to start until Brogdon is back -- perhaps beyond until Brogdon shows he’s healthy, too. While his minutes may be up, Brown scored just 2.5 points per first half against the Pistons. Even though Brown logged most of the minutes with the other starters, but Pat Connaughton was fourth on the team in minutes in the first round. Although, that’s a little skewed from garbage time with his team-high 7.7 minutes in the fourth quarter. It’s possible that Nikola Mirotic may also see a few more minutes to give the Bucks more size and scoring punch at times, too. The Bucks role players won’t be as important in this series, but Mirotic offers more upside as a bigger body to defend either Aron Baynes and/or Al Horford at times. Malcolm Brogdon should have an updated timetable in the coming days before the series starts.
Moving to Boston, Marcus Smart’s availability will be a major factor in this series. Coach Brad Stevens said Smart is “doing great” on Wednesday, but didn’t provide a specific update. Smart was able to run on a treadmill and also only got shots up at practice on Tuesday, but based on the video it didn’t look like he was close to getting to contact or nearing game action. Perhaps he can make it back at some point, but it’s far from a good bet.
Without Smart, the Celtics are likely to fire up Aron Baynes in the first unit again like they did against the Pacers and against the 76ers last year in a playoff series. Although, Stevens could go back to Marcus Morris because he’s guarded Lopez a bunch this season, allowing zero points in 32 possessions. The Baynes lineup actually didn’t fare well against the Pacers even in the sweep, putting up a -3.5 net rating over 41 minutes, and they were -4.8 in just 25 minutes during the regular season. Plus, the Baynes-Horford duo only had a -8.6 net rating in the playoffs while Horford was +24.8 without Baynes vs. Indy. On the other hand, Horford and Baynes had a sterling +18.5 net rating in the regular season, but that duo was only on the court against the Bucks this season on a free throw attempt. Baynes did start the last 12 games he was active, so that’ll likely get him the first crack. If the Celtics get off to a slow start, Stevens will likely change it up.
The Celtics defense was top notch against the Pacers to tie for an NBA-best 95.8 defensive rating (Raptors). That 95.8 is the best in the NBA over the last three first rounds in the postseasons. A big reason for that is Al Horford, who is arguably the most important player for Boston in this series. Besides the defensive stats above, Horford put up a team-high +16.8 net rating in his two games against the Bucks this season, averaging 19.5 points, 11.0 boards, 6.5 dimes, 1.0 steals, 2.0 blocks and 3.0 treys on a 50.1 TS% and 25.1 usage rate. The Bucks put Lopez on him more at 64 possessions, but it makes sense for Giannis to guard him and put Brook on Baynes -- it will likely be a combo of Giannis and Brook. Antetokounmpo kept Horford scoreless on 21 possessions this season with four assists. Horford is likely going to have to play more minutes than usual, and the time off between series should help his 32-year-old knees. He played 34.5 minutes per game against the Pacers and may get closer to 37 in this round.
The Celtics also had some success when Kyrie Irving was on the floor with a +5.4 net rating against the Bucks, averaging 21.7 points, 4.3 boards, 6.3 dimes, 1.0 steals, 1.3 blocks and 3.7 treys on 47.9 TS% and a 25.8 usage rate. Among teams Kyrie has played against multiple times this season, the Bucks are just one of two teams to hold him under 50 TS% (Spurs). Bledsoe guarded Kyrie a whopping 112 times, allowing just 32 points. Irving couldn’t get it going inside against the Bucks, making just 15-of-43 of his twos (34.9%). On top of the Bucks being the best rim-protecting team in the NBA, they also allow the lowest FG% from guards at the rim and the second-fewest attempts per game (Jazz). Plus, Kyrie went to the line just twice in the three games, so that could potentially be huge. The Bucks have been vulnerable on 3-pointers at times, so Irving will need to bury treys to have big scoring lines against the NBA’s best defense. Despite how Irving’s defensive numbers were good against Bledsoe, it make some sense to put him in Sterling Brown to keep him fresher on offense. Irving has shined as bright as just about anyone in tough matchups during the playoffs, so he could go off even though the stats may be against him.
Besides the defensive output mentioned above, Jayson Tatum was on par on the stat sheet against the Bucks this season, averaging 16.3 points, 7.0 boards, 2.3 dimes, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks and 2.0 treys on a 57.9 TS% and a 20.4 usage rate. Tatum’s defensive output will likely be more important than his offensive work, and he guarded three different Pacers for at least 47 possessions in the last round (Darren Collison, Wesley Matthews, Bojan Bogdanovic). He and Khris Middleton figure to square off against each other while Tatum could guard Bledsoe at times to take some pressure off Kyrie.
With Marcus Smart out, Jaylen Brown should be looking at extended minutes again. He was outstanding against the Bucks in the playoffs last year, averaging 17.9 points, 4.7 boards, 1.4 dimes and 2.4 treys. Although, that was because of no Kyrie Irving, and Jaylen had a 4.8 usage dip with Irving next to him compared to without him this season. Brown wasn’t very impressive in the first round at just 11.0 points due to a tiny 14.7 usage rate over his 29.1 minutes per game against the Pacers. He may see some time against Bledsoe while he may cross match against Sterling Brown in the first unit. Brown’s inconsistent 3-point shooting could tell the story on how many minutes he’ll play, but he did make 42.9% from deep against the Pacers, and he made 41.3% from deep after the break -- 31.6% before All-Star. Plus, he shot 60% from deep against the Bucks in the regular season en route to his 18.0 points per game. The Bucks also allowed the most wide-open threes this season, so he should get some open looks. If the shot isn’t dropping, he likely won’t be handling the ball too much and could lose minutes if any of the bench guys get hot.
Speaking of the bench, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier should see decent burn in this matchup. Rozier played 35 minutes next to Irving in the first round, but the Bucks have too much size for the Celtics to go small frequently. Gordon Hayward was fairly effective with 14.5 points per game in his two outings against the Bucks, and he ranked third in scoring in the first round at 12.3 points per game. Besides the starting unit in the last round, Hayward was in five of the six most-used lineups against the Pacers. Hayward guarded Middleton the most in the season series, and Middleton put the clamps on him with just four points allowed in 49 possessions while Hayward was productive in other matchups. Hayward hasn’t seen the Bucks since December, so his improved health should help him get more minutes to guard the Bucks perimeter guys. Marcus Morris could find himself in a plus matchup against Nikola Mirotic and/or Ersan Ilyasova, and he did play well in three of the four games against the Pacers. Morris really struggled after the break with just a 30.0 3P%, but like Brown, Morris could take advantage of the Bucks giving up so many open treys.
Defense is likely going to tell the story in this series, but there should be some tempo. The Bucks played fast in the first round at 13.2 seconds per possession to rank second in the playoffs while Boston was 10th despite the defense-first style against a strong Pacers defense in the first round (as of Wednesday). The Bucks dominated at home with a +11.5 net rating to lead the NBA and ranked second on the road at +5.7 while the Celtics ranked 11th at home with a +6.4 and seventh on the road at +2.1.The Bucks have dominated with Giannis on the floor at home with a +15.5 net rating and he still had a +10.3 on the road. The Bucks still managed a +5.6 net rating at home while Giannis was off the floor, so home-court advantage should work in their favor.
Bucks in five.