Pressing Questions: Can Boston Hang With the Mighty Bucks?

At long last, the wait is nearly over. The pretenders are gradually falling by the wayside, and the heavyweight matchups fans have been envisioning all season are beginning to take shape. The first one to officially materialize is the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks (Game 1: Sunday, 1 PM ET, ABC), and it promises to be a slugfest. Styles make fights, and the contrasts between these two squads should make for a fascinating series. After perfunctory squashings of their respective injured and overmatched foes in the East Prelims — let’s call them what they are — today we’ll take a look at the various factors and matchups which will decide who will be left standing and advance to the Conference Finals. As with any prize fight, it’s important to start with…

THE TALE OF THE TAPE

Regular readers know how I feel about this Milwaukee team, but I don’t want this analysis to come off as if I’m caping for them. When I refer to them as ‘mighty,’ it’s only because the record, stats, and game film all point to it. The only thing seemingly keeping them from the exalted status they rightfully deserve is the narrative surrounding them from fans and media, many of whom still regard this team with a healthy dose of skepticism. Playoff experience (or relative lack thereof) isn’t something we should dismiss, but at a certain point, it makes more sense to believe what your eyes are showing you than what the prevailing narratives keep telling you.

And these eyes see a juggernaut. Milwaukee does nearly everything well on a basketball court. Beyond the league’s best record — yes, achieved against a historically easy schedule, I’ll grant — the Bucks enjoyed the league’s highest point differential, the no. 4 offense, and the no. 1 defense. They scored the most points in the league, were 2nd in pace, 2nd in 3-point attempts, 2nd in Effective FG%, 1st in FG% Against and Effective FG% Against, 1st in rebounding, 1st in 2P%, 1st in 2P% Against, and 1st in Free Throw Rate Allowed. In other words, they play fast, space the floor, dominate the paint on both ends, defend without fouling, and clean the glass. And oh yeah, they are led by 24-year-old MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo, who just finished slapping up an unprecedented 27.7/ 12.5/ 5.9 on 58% shooting and a 30.9 PER in a load-managed 32.8 minutes per game. Unless you expect them to rip tickets and sell concessions during the game, there isn’t much left to be desired from this team. [In all seriousness, they do have a couple potentially exploitable weaknesses, which I’ll get to shortly.]

In contrast to Milwaukee’s steady dominance, Boston’s season has been defined by inconsistency and the seeming inability to live up to lofty preseason expectations. [Yes, I was guilty on this count as well.] Through all the up-and-down stretches of play and Kyrie-induced drama, however, the statistics still paint this Celtics’ squad as borderline elite, and we’ve begun to see more of that potential become kinetic over the last few weeks. For the season, Boston had the no. 10 offense, the no. 7 defense, and the no. 6 point differential — that of a 52-win team vs. the 49 wins they actually emerged with — but it’s all a bit illusory. Coach Brad Stevens seems to have finally found the optimal rotation and minutes distribution at the exact right moment, in part due to factors beyond his control. Marcus Smart is an undeniably useful role player and irritant, but his untimely injury appears to have slotted all the other rotation pieces into their proper roles and responsibilities for the first time all year. Al Horford — trust me, there’s more to say about him — finally looks healthy after being hampered for most of the campaign, and after almost two full seasons, Gordon Hayward seems to have regained confidence in his body and is playing with some semblance of the aggressiveness which defined his tenure in Utah. Their versatile defense put the clamps on an Indiana team which already struggled to generate good looks sans Victor Oladipo, but they’ll need to make some serious adjustments to compete with a Bucks’ team which employs more advanced basketball strategies, such as “running plays” and “having players capable of putting the ball in the hoop.” [Pacers’ coach Nate McMillan took some heat for having no counters to what Boston’s defense was doing to them, but realistically, he had no good options available to him. It simply wasn’t a fair fight.]

Historically, regular season head-to-head matchups don’t tend to be terribly predictive of postseason outcomes — rotations ebb and flow too much over the course of the long season — but there may be some nuggets of wisdom we can glean from the previous tilts. Milwaukee won two of three games, with the lone loss coming all the way back on November 1st. In that game, Boston shot a gob-smacking 24-of-55 from three (including 4-of-11 from Horford) and racked up 30 assists in a 117-113 win. The Celtics would combine to shoot 24-of-74 from deep in the two losses later in the season. [There is a lot more to say about three-point shooting in this series, so hold that thought.] Horford was a DNP in the second matchup, a 120-107 Bucks’ win in December in which Milwaukee shot 51% from the field and held a 55-to-36 rebounding edge.

The final matchup was the first game following the All-Star Break, and it had a distinctly playoff-like feel to it. Milwaukee won 98-97 at home, but the game offered some glimmers of hope for Boston in terms of slowing down the Bucks’ machine. Giannis put up his customary 30/ 13/ 6 on 11-of-19 shooting, but the other starters mostly struggled, particularly Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton. Milwaukee shot 14-of-39 from deep, right in line with their season averages, but an uncharacteristic 47% from inside the arc (vs. 56.5% for the season, tops in the league, as previously mentioned). On a probably related note, Horford played 37 minutes and was a +12 in the loss, putting up a monstrous 21/ 17/ 5, along with 2 steals and 3 blocks.

Again, we shouldn’t extrapolate too much from a three-game regular season sample, but on Boston’s side of the ledger, two things became clear: 1) It took a Herculean, high-variance performance from deep to beat the Bucks in their one win; and 2) Al Horford’s presence and performance are absolutely critical if they hope to pull the series upset, which is a perfect segue into…

THE MATCHUPS

Giannis is the NBA’s skeleton key, unlocking every possible lineup combination imaginable. He forms such an imposing frontcourt tandem with Brook Lopez because each player covers up the primary weakness of the other — shooting in Giannis’ case, defensive agility in Brook’s — while allowing them to stay super-big against most opposing units and protect the rim at a high level. But Horford is the kryptonite to this strategy. He possesses a rare combination of skills for a big man: the strength and length to defend the interior, along with the agility to guard on the perimeter, whether switching onto guards or closing out to shooters, combined with the offensive ability to pick-and-pop beyond the arc and knock down shots. He can capably serve as the lone big man in smaller lineups or alongside a “true” center. In the case of this matchup, Horford’s versatility could have the effect of devaluing Lopez when Horford plays the 5, presumably with the wing troika of Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown on the floor. In that configuration, there is nowhere to hide Lopez defensively, as he will struggle to close out to Horford or other shooters in the screen game as well as to switch onto guards or wings in the pick-and-roll. Lopez has been a phenomenal interior defender this year, but this strength is mitigated to a degree by the fact the Celtics attack the basket less than most other teams.

Brad Stevens opted to start Horford with Aron Baynes in all four games against Indiana, but the Pacers did not have the offensive personnel to make Boston pay for this choice or force them to adjust, whereas against Milwaukee, deploying a heavy dose of the Baynes/Horford pairing would be gifting the Bucks with the exact matchups they would prefer. Baynes is an underrated player — and often acts as something of a bellwether for this C’s team — but this is not going to be the series for him. The Celtics will need to go small with Horford at the 5 to force Coach Bud to make a decision on how much he can afford to play Lopez. [The numbers from the head-to-head matchups bear this out; the Celtics outscored the Bucks by 28 points in the 44 minutes Horford and Lopez shared the floor this season.]

If Lopez is effectively neutralized, the Bucks will have to either match Boston’s small lineup, putting Giannis on Horford (taking away some of his ability to terrorize the opposition as a “free safety”), or funnel more minutes to second-year man DJ Wilson, who provides somewhat more defensive mobility than Lopez without losing too much in terms of floor spacing. Perhaps the latter strategy gets a bit too cute, going with an unproven player over a veteran who has been integral to the team’s success throughout the season, which makes me suspect we’ll see a lot of point-center Giannis in this series. In this alignment, Milwaukee can switch more readily to take away Horford’s pick-and-pop game without compromising at the point of attack, since they would be switching Giannis — the league’s most versatile and lethal defender — onto the ballhandler (ostensibly Kyrie or Rozier). Whether this adjustment is worth sacrificing Lopez’s gravity at the offensive end could prove to be the key to the series.

Despite the bevy of wing/guard talent on Boston’s roster, there aren’t any other matchups which should cause Milwaukee too much defensive discomfort. Bledsoe will obviously be looking to exorcise his demons from last year’s hellish first-round series, and he’ll need to avoid letting Rozier get into his head when they are facing off. On paper though, there’s really no better matchup for Kyrie, and Bled has shown a renewed offensive aggressiveness this year which should force Irving to expend energy on the defensive end as well. The Bucks have lengthy, rugged wings in Middleton, Sterling Brown, and George Hill (along with Giannis in certain configurations) who will coax tough shots from Boston’s perimeter guys, so it is going to be a slog for them to put up points. In addition, there is one other perimeter guy who’s been on the shelf for a bit, but could prove pivotal if he’s able to return to action…

O BROGDON, WHERE ART THOU?

All signs point to guard Malcolm Brogdon, who has been out since mid-March with a minor plantar fascia tear, returning to the Bucks’ lineup sometime during this series. It is unclear how much he may be able to play or how effective he could be in those minutes, but one thing is clear: Milwaukee could sure use what he brings to the table against this Boston team.

Brogdon has been perhaps the league’s most elite role player this season, and even this description probably undersells his impact. In 64 games, the former Rookie of the Year averaged 15.6/ 4.5/ 3.2 on ludicrous 51/ 43/ 93 shooting splits in 28.6 minutes per game. In so doing, Brogdon became only the eighth member of the vaunted 50-40-90 Club, joining Larry Bird, Mark Price, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, and Steph Curry, AKA a who’s who of the best shooters in NBA history. In addition to his uncanny ability to knock down open looks created by Giannis’ galactic gravitational pull, he attacks closeouts well, keeps the ball moving without turning it over, and is an active, attentive, switchable defender. He fits his complementary role so perfectly and manages his responsibilities with such technical proficiency, it can be easy to miss how critical his contributions are.

The Bucks have been able to paper over his absence during the stretch run of the season and the dismantling of the undermanned Pistons with a combination of Brown, Hill, and Pat Connaughton, all of whom, to their credit, used the additional opportunity to find a rhythm heading into the postseason. Brown in particular will certainly have a role to play in this series, but even so, a return by Brogdon would be a huge boon for Milwaukee in slotting everyone into an ideal spot in the rotation to best counteract Boston’s strengths. Milwaukee’s depth gives them answers to nearly any opposing lineup, but there probably isn’t much of a place in this series for semi-redundant stretch-4’s Ersan Ilyasova and Nikola Mirotic, both of whom struggle to defend in space just as much as Lopez. [Mirotic looked like the steal of the trade deadline, but has alternated between injured and ineffective since coming over from New Orleans. I suppose there’s a world where he returns to health and is unleashed in this series, but I struggle to see it. The trade was still the right move at the time, and if the Bucks advance, he could yet prove useful in later rounds.]

Getting even twenty minutes a game (and some semblance of the shooting prowess he displayed during the regular season) out of Brogdon would allow Coach Bud to optimize both his starting lineup and his bench unit, roll with another guy he clearly trusts on both ends, and open up additional spacing for the Greek Freak’s assaults on the rim. Amid Milwaukee’s continued steamrolling, it’s been easy to overlook Brogdon’s absence, but his presence and effectiveness — or lack thereof — could be deciding factors now that the stakes have been raised.

[Update: The Bucks have officially ruled out Brogdon for Games 1 and 2 of the series, and he will be re-evaluated thereafter.]

THREE IS MORE THAN TWO — UNTIL IT ISN’T

It’s worth diving a bit deeper on the gap between the perception and the reality of this Bucks’ team because it’s going to come into stark relief in this series. Most everyone knows at this point Giannis is the straw that stirs the drink for Milwaukee’s offense, and even with his well-documented struggles from the outside, the perception remains the Bucks are reliant (or perhaps overly reliant) on the three-ball for their success. Paradoxically, this is both true and not true at once. The Bucks did attempt the second-most triples in the league — behind only the Moreyball Rockets, naturally — but they were also not particularly accurate shooting from deep, posting a middle-of-the-pack 15th in 3-point percentage. The trade-off for this relative lack of efficiency is the space this willingness to bomb away creates in the paint, and it is the counterintutive secret sauce to Milwaukee’s dominance. When watching their offense, oftentimes there is no player anywhere near the paint for much of the possession, as Giannis initiates from the perimeter or the pinch post and the other four guys space to (and sometimes well beyond) the arc around him.

The threat of the outside shooters, as much as the reality, creates the chasm in the middle of the floor for cutters and the alien freakishness of Giannis’ rim attacks. The need for the defense to close off these lanes in turn creates actual open looks for the shooters themselves, often without doing anything more complicated than a Giannis iso or a simple off-ball screen to generate a paint touch for a teammate. It all snowballs, and it’s what makes their offense so difficult to slow down, even if the shooting percentages from deep aren’t particularly noteworthy. Their biggest strategic quirk is to clear out the paint in order to dominate it. Obviously the whole thing falls apart without a superhuman point-center doing the heavy lifting, but in the three-happy modern NBA, it’s fascinating to watch a team breathe new life into the age-old mantra that the surest path to offensive success is by controlling the area around the rim.

The Celtics, by contrast, actually are what would be considered a “jump shooting team,” whether by design or necessity. They showed an encouraging level of aggressiveness in getting to the rim against Indiana — particularly Hayward and Tatum, two of the main culprits prone to settling for jumpers — but it remains to be seen if they can sustain this newfound attacking mentality, or if, when faced with the interior dominance of the Bucks, they revert to their season-long habits. They do space the floor well, in terms of both volume and efficiency (7th in both 3PA and 3P%), but this proficiency from deep is about the only offensive area where they excel. Boston is middle-of-the-pack in pace and shooting inside the arc, and near the bottom of the league in getting to the line and offensive rebounding. If they aren’t hitting from deep, generating points can be a real challenge for this offense.

This sets up as a fascinating game-within-the-game against Milwaukee’s top-ranked defense. The Bucks walled off the paint better than anyone in the league, but the trade-off was allowing the most three-point attempts, even as they did a good job in funneling those shots to the opposition’s least effective shooters. This strategy, however, could play into Boston’s hands to a degree, since the C’s will likely eschew the paint to a large extent because of the clear disadvantage they face there, and shunt more of the usage to their shooters, among whom there isn’t much of a weak link for Milwaukee’s defense to exploit. Even if Milwaukee deftly forces the ball into the hands of the least threatening offensive player on the floor, whoever that “pressure release valve” is will still be adept at canning open looks. While it feels like it happened eons ago, the first head-to-head matchup between the teams back in November could serve as a blueprint for Boston’s attack. Remember, they attempted an absurd 55 triples, making 24 of them. It’s a super-high variance strategy, and it will probably go bust at least a couple times during the series, but it may be the only chance they have to hang with Milwaukee’s relentless ability to keep the scoreboard turning.

Three is more than two, but the genius of the Bucks’ attack is they manage to make the math work for them both ways. They will certainly not be hesitant to fire from deep as well, and so long as they hit something like their usual percentages, they’ll have enough of a buffer to let their dominance in transition, on the interior, and at the line take them home. Milwaukee’s offense is so devastating because there is no single adjustment to turn off the spigot of points; they attack the defense at every level and just grind it into dust over the course of the game. Whereas a team like Golden State is akin to a venomous cobra, lying in wait and feeling things out for much of the game before putting the opponent away with a quick strike, the Bucks are more like a boa constrictor, slowly, relentlessly applying pressure throughout the game, taking advantage of each small weakness until you look up and it’s a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter. And if the Celtics can’t shoot their way out of the constriction, Milwaukee will gradually squeeze the life out of them, too.

WHO ARE THE X-FACTORS?

The obvious answer here is Gordon Hayward, who as mentioned earlier, has begun to look like himself again over the last two months. His versatility as a secondary playmaker, rim attacker, and spot-up shooter could be critical in forcing Milwaukee’s defense to rotate and account for additional threats, rather than just staying home on the shooters. Any amount of pressure he (along with Tatum and Kyrie) can put on the Bucks’ stout interior defense will create slivers of space for their other deep threats, and at least chip away at some of the massive advantage Milwaukee will enjoy in the paint on the other end.

I already discussed Brogdon, and if he can’t go or contribute with any consistency, Sterling Brown becomes a major factor. The Bucks will need his size and physicality on the wing to counter that of Boston, and as the least proven option in their rotation, the Celtics defense will likely force him to hit open shots and attack closeouts at a high level. If he falters, the defense will sag off of him, which will in turn sap some small percentage of the effectiveness of Antetokounmpo’s interior game. Coach Bud could instead turn to Connaughton on the wing to goose the floor spacing, but he is not as rugged a defender as Brown. These seem like small compromises, but they will add up over the length of the series if Brogdon is hampered.

For Milwaukee, the tactical solution to all of these rotational conundrums may turn out to be a simple one: just play Giannis more. It is perhaps the single biggest adjustment available to any contender in these playoffs, and there is no downside. As previously discussed, Giannis played only 32.8 minutes a game this season, though he did average 35.4 in the three meetings with the Celtics. Crank that number up into the 38-40 range and the phrase “video game numbers” may not even do justice to the type of stat lines The Freak will churn out. There is no reason to think averages of 33/ 16/ 9/ 2/ 2 on 60% shooting for the series are out of the question at all. Playing time being a zero-sum game, those extra minutes come with the added bonus of siphoning court time away from a lesser player, mitigating some of the aforementioned strategic vulnerabilities. The scary thing is how the Bucks have been able to essentially slow play Giannis this entire season, and it hasn’t cost them anything. If he’s fully unleashed, there may just be no answer for it. [And believe me, it is taking every ounce of my willpower not to insert a Milton Berle joke here.]

The way the Celtics walled off Ben Simmons in the playoffs last season provided the proof of concept for defending a player somewhat similar to Giannis, and they will likely run back that strategy in some form, but Giannis and the Bucks are a different animal, individually and collectively. Milwaukee’s shooters and secondary playmakers offer a set of counters that Philly team did not possess, and the length and physicality of Giannis are such that even Horford’s wizardry and a concerted, team-wide effort to deter him from the rim may not be enough. The Celtics have done well to finally exhibit some of the form we all thought we would see back in the preseason, and they have the elements to turn this into an all-out war, but I just can’t get there in thinking it will be sufficient to take down a player and team as formidable as Giannis and the Bucks.

THE PREDICTION

Bucks in 6.

Top Photo Credit: Michael Dwyer/AP Photo

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