In Sports

It's Boston versus Milwaukee in the playoffs ... again. (PHOTO: Dan Garcia)

Everything you need to know for the Bucks-Celtics second round matchup

After breaking Detroit's spirit in the first half of Game 1 and then systematically gutting the Pistons with each passing game, the Milwaukee Bucks are moving onto the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the first time in nearly two decades, where they will meet the fourth-seed Boston Celtics.

Boston got the better of Milwaukee in an epic seven-game series last April, though the two teams have changed so drastically since that back-and-forth duel that any history from 2018 is likely just that – history. The Bucks are reformed in the image of new head coach Mike Budenholzer, while the Celtics have seesawed throughout 2018-19 as they mix now-healthy stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward in with their cohort of youngsters.

Both Boston and Milwaukee powered through round one with respective sweeps, though the Bucks' Motown evisceration was so thorough that the two series hardly compare. The Celtics defeated the Pacers by an average of 7.5 points per game; the Bucks whipped the Pistons by 23.8 points per night. Boston won its first game 84-74; Milwaukee's 487 total points was the most in a first-round four-game sweep in NBA history.

The two teams should be plenty rested by the time the conference semifinals tips off. The first round of the NBA playoffs already provides additional rest days between games, and now the Celts and Bucks will have nearly a week off before the conference semifinals. Game 1 of this series could go one of two ways: a sluggish start as the two squads find their sea legs again, or a spirited battle from the jump with the players chomping at the bit to get back into game action.

The season series was relatively tight, with the Milwaukee earning a split across the two games in Boston and taking care of the lone home contest at Fiserv Forum. The Bucks won the most recent meeting, 98-97, in the first game post-All-Star break.

On the court, Boston has a mishmash of size to throw at Giannis, including its big man Al Horford, forward Marcus Morris, and wings Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Pit-bull guard Marcus Smart – who would certainly relish the challenge of bodying up the bigger Antetokounmpo – will likely miss this series with an oblique injury. Still, the Celtics will always be able to surround its point guard (either Kyrie Irving or Terry Rozier) with at least four mobile players who stand 6-foot-7 or taller.

Hayward and Morris came off the bench in the Indiana series, with head coach Brad Stevens rolling out a two big-man lineup featuring Horford and Aron Baynes. Don't be surprised if Baynes moves back to a bench role with Hayward or Morris returning to the starting unit in an effort to wall off the elastic Antetokounmpo with more athletic length.

Obviously, barricading Anteokounmpo is easier said than done, and it's certainly not a new look for the Freak. Antetokounmpo has destroyed the Celtics over the years; after averaging 26-10-6 during last year's playoff series, he posted 31-11-4 in the three regular season meetings with the C's. Over a full game, much less a full series, it is nearly impossible to keep the 6-foot-11 MVP candidate from getting to his spots, and even if Boston is able to slow him down by packing the paint, Giannis will simply flip the ball out to the perimeter to one of the Bucks' cadre of shooters. Milwaukee launched over 38 threes per game in the regular season, good for second in the league.

One thing we have not seen yet from Antetokounmpo under Budenholzer: playing a full game. Antetokounmpo averaged 40 minutes per game during the postseason last year, but only cracked that total twice this year during the regular season, and not once since early December. Because of the first-round blowouts, the Bucks managed to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo under 29 minutes per game against Detroit.

In a tight game, especially as we move deeper into the series, Bud could dust off his Euro-stepping hurricane for something like 43 minutes per night. Milwaukee has a deep rotation, but this could be the first moment of many where the Bucks' 24-year-old superstar puts the organization on his back and carries the load for a week.

Giannis is certainly the headliner, but the two matchups that could tilt the series will be Irving against Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton against Boston's wing rotation. Bledsoe famously imploded against Boston sans Irving last spring; how will he fare under the bright lights against the player who nailed maybe the biggest basketball shot of the decade?

Bledsoe did not shoot particularly well against Boston this season, but the chiseled 6-foot-1 guard can be something of a defensive stopper when he wants to be. He fared well against Irving in the final two matchups with Boston this winter, with Kyrie shooting just 16-47 from the field during the Bucks' two wins. Yet, matching up with Irving in the postseason is a different beast entirely; Uncle Drew has averaged 24 points and five assists with sterling 46/42/88 percent shooting splits across 56 playoff games.

He lives for this time of year, while the Bucks are still getting their feet wet in the postseason. Bledsoe must attack every defensive possession with total focus, because even if Kyrie misses his first 10 shots, it only takes one for him to heat right back up.

Middleton broke out on the national stage against Boston last April, going off for 25-5-3 on 60 percent shooting from the field. He battled through bouts of inconsistency this season despite making his first All-Star team and did not shoot the ball particularly well in the three games against the Celtics earlier this year (37 percent). Still, Middleton is more than capable of revving up the intensity for 10 days, and with Smart injured, he will be matched up with a less capable defender. Middleton was ruthlessly efficient against Detroit's corpse in round one, so he is showing signs of life heading into this Celtics series.

Smart seems unlikely to return to the court in time for this series, but the Bucks are still holding out hope for Malcolm Brogdon, who has missed the past five weeks with a right plantar fascia injury. Milwaukee is still determining a timetable for the UVA product.

Even if Brogdon doesn't return in the second round, Budenholzer has to be at peace with his current backcourt rotation next to Bledsoe. Over Milwaukee's past 10 games, Sterling Brown, Pat Connaughton and George Hill are averaging a combined 34.1 points. But Brogdon's return – even in spot minutes – would give Milwaukee one more reliable shooter to space the floor around Giannis. Brogdon was the only rotation player in the NBA to post a 50/40/90 shot profile this season.

Boston has run hot and cold all season, and besides Irving, it's impossible to know who will show up on a nightly basis. Bucks in six – for non-Brandon Jennings-related reasons, mind you – is a tempting hedge against Boston's theoretical ceiling. However, we now have an 86-game sample saying the Bucks are considerably better than the Celtics and are trotting out the best player in the series to boot.

Let's go all in: Milwaukee wins in five.

Buckle up, because the true postseason test is just getting started.


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