The second-round playoff series between the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics is going to be a war. The preseason favorite to sit atop the post-LeBron Eastern Conference squares off against the top-seeded breakout team of the 2018-19 season that features the likely MVP and Coach Of The Year. These are two teams that match up extremely well, and the series that begins Sunday at noon in Milwaukee has all the makings of an instant classic.
The Bucks won 11 more games than the Celtics this year, boast homecourt advantage, and have the best player in the series (and maybe—probably?—the entire NBA). They are the clear favorites, but Boston can challenge the Bucks in ways unlike other Eastern Conference contenders. They’ve been considered the most difficult in-conference match-up for Milwaukee for much of the season.
Even though the Bucks and Celtics faced each other in last year’s playoffs—a first-round series that was decided in a seventh game in Boston—this year’s meeting has far fewer similarities than you might expect for two teams meeting just 12 months apart. Kyrie Irving was out with injury, as was Gordon Hayward. The Bucks gave meaningful minutes to Thon Maker, Jabari Parker, Jason Terry, Shabazz Muhammad, and Tyler Zeller, and were coached by Joe Prunty. This year’s series is a much different beast.
So here are five things to watch as the Bucks begin their biggest series in nearly two decades.
1. The Celtics are going to try everything to stop Giannis (and that probably means fouling him a lot)
Giannis Antetokounmpo has built himself into the most unstoppable force in basketball. The presumptive MVP averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game, and he did so in fewer minutes per game (32.8) than he’s played since his second year in the league, when he was just 20 years old. After a series sweep against Detroit in which he played just 28.3 minutes per game, Giannis is rested and ready to be unleashed for 40+ minutes of two-way fury every game.
No team can stop Giannis, but Boston is positioned to at least make him work for his buckets. The Celtics had the 6th best defense in the NBA this season (yes, the Bucks were 1st), and veteran All-Star big man Al Horford has defended Giannis as well as just about anyone. The Celtics will throw everyone they’ve got at Giannis to keep from him getting to the rim, where he finishes better than anyone since prime Shaq.
The Celtics have already said they are going to try to draw offensive fouls on Giannis as he breaks down those defenses on his rampaging drives to the rim, and do you know what that means? That means there’s going to be a lot of flopping in this series. The best way to stop Giannis is to get him into foul trouble so he tampers down his aggressiveness.
Beyond that, the best defense against Giannis this season has been when teams have fouled him on just about every possession, hoping the officials wouldn’t call every infraction. Boston is an active, physical defensive team, and they will make the Bucks work for every basket, and sometimes they’ll go one step further than that. How Giannis & Co. respond to the physicality (and fouls) in this series is going to make a big difference toward the end result.
2. The Brook Lopez Chess Match
This will be one of the main strategic X’s-and-O’s storylines of the series. Lopez has been a hugely important part of this team on both ends of the floor, defending the rim and walling off the paint on defense, and bombing away from beyond the three-point line on offense. He’s unlocked so much of what the Bucks do under Coach Mike Budenholzer. Game-to-game, you could argue that he’s been their second most important player this season.
But more than perhaps any other team, the Celtics are positioned to, well, get him out of position. Horford is one of the best pick-and-pop big men in the NBA, and his long-range shooting and playmaking could pull Lopez away from the basket where he’s most effective, and make the 7’0”, 270-pound behemoth move his feet a bit more than the Bucks would probably prefer. And offensively, the Celtics aren’t looking to attack the basket as often as other teams, limiting the need for Lopez’s most impactful defensive skill—he ranked 4th in the NBA in blocks per game, ahead of celebrated shotblocker Joel Embiid.
That all might not matter if Lopez scores enough on offense. “Splash Mountain” led the Bucks in made threes this season, and the threat of his shot opens up driving lanes for Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe.
Sub-category here: the Mike Budenholzer-Brad Stevens coaching match-up could involve a truly dizzying number of adjustments. As Zach Lowe details at ESPN, there are a lot of different ways these coaches could try to out-maneuver their opponent. The chess match here is real, and after Giannis, it centers around Lopez.
3. Khris “Khash Money” Middleton can really earn his payday in this series
Last year against Boston, Khris Middleton went into full-on NBA JAM-style “HE’S ON FIRE!” mode, averaging 24.7 points per game and shooting an absurd 61 percent on threes. It would be a bit unrealistic to think he’d reach those heights again, but the Celtics are a good opponent for him. With so much attention paid on Giannis, Boston has to throw lesser defenders at Middleton, and he can make them pay.
Playoff defenses can grind some of the best offenses (yes, like the Bucks, who ranked 4th in the NBA) to a halt on certain possessions. The Bucks will need Middleton—who sometimes needs only a sliver of space to get a shot off—to go get a bucket late in the shot clock when things get tight.
Middleton will be a free agent this offseason and he’s going to get some very rich offers regardless of how this series plays out. But if he can help propel the Bucks to the Eastern Conference Finals with a big series against Boston, you can bet he’s going to get a serious payday to stay in Milwaukee with Giannis and compete for titles. Middleton has his doubters, so here’s where he can really prove his worth.
4. Will chemistry matter?
The Bucks have been the most cohesive team in the league this season. The “Team Joy” nickname that was assigned to the Golden State Warriors appears to have moved from the Bay Area to the shores of Lake Michigan. The Bucks have fun playing together and it’s clear the team chemistry and camaraderie is truly special. If you’ve watched this team this season, you’re sure to agree.
Meanwhile, in Boston, the Celtics have seen a constant churn of infighting, weird press conferences, inconsistency, free agency rumors, a seemingly endless number of “turning points” (that ended up not being turning points), and all the signs of a team ready to turn on each other. Will any of that matter now that it appears the Celtics have reached yet another turning point following the thumping the Indiana Pacers in a first round series sweep?
5. How will the Fiserv Forum home crowds compare to those in Boston?
The TD Garden in Boston is notoriously one of the most difficult places to play in the NBA. There’s a reason the Celtics won all four of their home games against the Bucks in last year’s series. The Bucks are certainly a better team this year, but will they be able to win Game 3 or 4 on the road?
While the Detroit series offered a nice little appetizer of playoff basketball, it’s going to be really interesting to see how the fans at the Fiserv Forum respond when the real thing comes to town. In a series as close as this, it’s going to be incredibly important to protect home court. This is a great opportunity for Bucks fans to rise to the occasion.
Get ready, Milwaukee. This is going to be fun.