With the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks both sweeping their first round opponent, they will match up in the eastern conference semifinals. This series will feature an MVP candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo and one of the league’s best players and craftiest scorers in Kyrie Irving. Both teams are good and feature two of the best coaches in the league in Mike Budenholzer, a candidate for coach of the year and a previous coach of the year, and Brad Stevens, a previous coach of the year finalist. The series should be competitive and fun to watch.
Milwaukee Bucks vs Boston Celtics Series Preview
The Celtics and Bucks have played each other three times this season so far. The Bucks won two out of three games with a net rating of +3.33. Two of the games were decided by less than five points. In the lone blowout, the Bucks won by 13 points. However, Al Horford, Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris were all out for the Celtics. On the other hand, the Celtics lone win came just a couple weeks into the season. The only game in which Nikola Mirotic played the Bucks won by one point. However, both Baynes and Gordon Hayward were out for the Celtics.
The Celtics and Bucks also met in the first round in last year’s playoffs. The Celtics ended up winning that series in seven games without both Irving and Hayward. However, both teams have changed immensely since then. The Celtics of course now have Irving and Hayward but are without Marcus Smart. They have also gone through a fair amount of controversy and distractions in the regular season. The Bucks have also changed a lot since then. They fired Joe Prunty and now have Budenholzer, who is a candidate for coach of the year. They also signed Brook Lopez and traded for Mirotic. Not to mention their returning players improved a lot, likely because of the coaching change.
Who Will Defend Giannis?
Antetokounmpo has been one of, if not the best player in the NBA this season. He is also difficult to game plan against as he has a rare combination of size, strength, and speed. The key to beating the Bucks should be focused around Antetokounmpo. Lucky for the Celtics, Horford, Semi Ojeleye and Morris are well equipped to deal with Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo was guarded by 11 different players throughout the series. However, only three people defended him for at least 50 possessions. Horford for 161, Ojeleye for 142 and Morris for 92. Horford allowed him to score 2.2 points per 100 possessions more than he did during the previous regular season with an effective field goal percentage of 0.563%. That number was 9.5 points less for Ojeleye with an effective field goal percentage of 0.509% and 8.0 points less for Morris with an effective field goal percentage of 0.500%. Effective field goal percentage is an efficiency stat that values three-pointers as 1.5 times the value of two-pointers. The league average is 0.524%.
Antetokounmpo matched up with 13 Celtics players, with four of them having at least 25 possessions defending him during the regular season this year. Those four were Horford with 41, Ojeleye with 40, Morris with 28 and Jayson Tatum with 25. Horford allowed him to score 5.0 points per 100 possessions less than he did during this regular season with an effective field goal percentage of 0.591%. Those numbers were 8.4 more and 0.750% with Ojeleye, 35.9 more and 0.700% with Morris, and 12.9 more and 0.600% with Tatum.
Nobody on the Celtics is going to stop Antetokounmpo as he is just too good. However, with the right matchup, the Celtics can slow him down enough to at least prolong the series and maybe win. They will most likely have Horford and Ojeleye guard Antetokounmpo. Those two seem to slow him down the most in their previous matchups.
Who Should the Celtics Start Next to Horford?
In their series against the Indiana Pacers, the Celtics opted to start Baynes next to Horford. However, against the Bucks, they may not be able to do that. With Horford defending Antetokounmpo, Baynes will be tasked with defending Lopez on the perimeter. Baynes isn’t mobile so this may be something the Bucks can exploit. Furthermore, Lopez took 391 shots from 25-29 feet. The furthest part of the three-point line is just 23 feet and nine inches. Lopez takes a lot of deep threes, so Baynes will not be able to keep up with him that far from the rim. When Lopez has a defender at least four feet away from him, he shoots 0.367% on three-point attempts. Putting Baynes on Lopez will likely cause Lopez to get several open looks.
Instead, the Celtics should start Hayward next to Horford. While Hayward is just 6-8 and Lopez is 7-0, it should be okay. The Bucks can have Lopez post up Hayward, but that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Lopez isn’t a bad post player – he’s actually fairly good at 0.529% on 1.0 attempt per game while being in the 77th percentile. If the Bucks run their offense through Lopez posting up instead of Antetokounmpo doing literally anything, the Celtics should consider that a success.
Who Will Win?
While the regular season isn’t completely indicative of which team is better, it is a good baseline. The Bucks have a record of 60-22 and the Celtics have a record of 49-33. However, records can sometimes be flawed as teams may outperform or underperform their record. This is why a simple rating system is a better way to tell which team is better. The simple rating system takes into account margin of victory and strength of schedule. The Celtics were eighth in the league in simple rating system while the Bucks were first by a wide margin. In fact, this Bucks season is one of the best in the modern era. Since 1979-1980, when the three-point shot was introduced, up until today, this Bucks season ranks 20th in simple rating system. In this century, it ranks 11th. While it will be a competitive and entertaining series, the Bucks should most likely win.
DENVER, CO – JANUARY 29: Kyrie Irving (11) of the Boston Celtics waits for action to resume against the Denver Nuggets during the second half of the Celtics’ 111-110 win on Monday, January 29, 2018. The Denver Nuggets hosted the Boston Celtics at the Pepsi Center in Denver. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)