The Milwaukee Bucks held most of the cards going into the last day of the regular season.
They were in the East’s No. 2 slot, one game ahead of the Boston Celtics, but knew Boston held the tiebreaker. The Bucks saw the Brooklyn Nets lurking as a potentially dangerous No. 7 seed.
The Bucks effectively conceded their final game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, sitting all their key regulars save for Jrue Holiday — who played eight seconds before committing an intentional foul so he could log his 67th game, and trigger a $306,000 bonus. By doing so, Milwaukee foisted an unpleasant choice onto the Celtics: If Boston beat Memphis in its finale, it would leapfrog Milwaukee into the No. 2 spot — risking that matchup against Brooklyn. Lose to the Grizzlies (who had nothing to play for, and rested all five starters), and the Celtics — assuming a Philadelphia 76ers win over the Detroit Pistons — would fall to No. 4. That meant a series against the Toronto Raptors, amid rumblings at least one key Boston player was not fully vaccinated — and thus ineligible to play in Toronto.
Boston won, and got that No. 2 seed — and a date with the Nets. The Bucks avoided Brooklyn, but their gambit cost them home-court advantage in this mega-series. For the second consecutive postseason, it’s possible Milwaukee is playing the “real” NBA Finals in the second round — only this time without Khris Middleton for at least the first part of the series as he recovers from a leg injury. (I’m less convinced of the “real NBA Finals” framing this time around, given how great the Phoenix Suns have been when healthy and the Golden State Warriors now rampaging at full throttle.)
Boston has been by far the league’s best team since Jan. 1. It is 38-12 in that span, and has outscored opponents by about 12.5 points per 100 possessions. Anything over double digits suggests historic dominance. The No. 2 team in that stretch — Phoenix — was plus-8 per 100 possessions. For the season, the Bucks are plus-3.2.
Jayson Tatum was the best player (by a lot) in a series featuring Kevin Durant. If he’s the best player in this series, Milwaukee is in trouble. With Middleton out, the Bucks need Giannis Antetokounmpo at his peak to beat Boston four times in seven tries — with a potential Game 7 on the road. They need him to be the best player by a comfortable margin. Antetokounmpo is obviously capable, even against a Boston team that has more options defending him than any other opponent. He is the league’s most destructive two-way player — a two-time MVP and reigning Finals MVP who appears to have overcome his free throw issues and can toggle between all three front-court positions.
If there is a player who can solve Boston’s impenetrable, ultra-switchy defense, it is Antetokounmpo.
That defense has gotten most of the attention during Boston’s rise, but the Celtics also have the league’s No. 2 offense over those 50 games. It is well built to prod Milwaukee’s stout defense. The Bucks prioritize limiting shots at the rim and free throws; the Celtics don’t depend much on either. They were 22nd in both free throw rate and percentage of attempts in the restricted area, per Cleaning The Glass.
Boston takes a good amount of long 2s and lots of 3s — a prerequisite for having any chance against Milwaukee. Only the Miami Heat allowed more 3-point attempts than Milwaukee. The Bucks live with a certain number of semi-contested (and sometimes uncontested) above-the-break 3s. It is the cost they pay to barricade the paint. To upend them — to turn math against them — you have to make a solid number of those 3s. You won’t outduel the Bucks at the rim, and you almost certainly won’t make enough long 2s to warp the math in your favor. (This is why the 3-phobic Chicago Bulls were drawing dead against Milwaukee in the first round.)
Boston is not a great long-range shooting team. It starts one total non-shooter (Robert Williams III, assuming he returns to the starting lineup) and two so-so shooters — Marcus Smart and Al Horford, both around 33% from deep — around Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Derrick White has struggled on 3s. Grant Williams has been a revelation from deep this season, but the Bucks are likely eager to see how real that is. (It looks real from here.)
Expect the Bucks to dare Horford, Smart, White, and even Grant Williams to launch — to sometimes leave them open, close out only halfway, maybe get in their heads if they miss a couple in a row. On the flip side, if those guys hit enough open 3s, the Celtics should be in good shape — and the Bucks might have to adjust.
The Celtics have preferred to play big, with two of Williams, Williams III, and Horford on the floor at almost all times. They have rarely had to downsize, shifting Brown or Tatum to power forward as a means of boosting their shooting. Playing big has fortified Boston’s defense and rebounding. It will be interesting to see if Milwaukee can nudge them into smaller lineups at all, and if it would even matter. (It seemed for a bit after the White trade that Boston’s closing five would be Smart, White, Brown, Tatum, and Williams III, but we have not seen much of that group. Horford and Williams have been too good.)
Boston compensates for so-so shooting with side-to-side action, expert shotmaking from its stars, and copious mismatch hunting — with the goal of getting a smaller guard switched onto Tatum. In the regular-season, Tatum participated in pick-and-rolls (as either screener or ball handler) with Smart and Brown about 11.5 times combined per 100 possessions, per Second Spectrum. That skyrocketed to about 25 such pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions in the first round against Brooklyn; the Nets offered Tatum his pick among several undersized guards. (Boston is also using the Tatum-White and Tatum-Payton Pritchard combos more.)
Tatum and Brown cooperated in more off-ball screening actions when Brooklyn stashed a smaller guard on Brown.
The Tatum-Smart two-man game has been the star of the show. In the regular season, Boston averaged 1.4 points per possession on trips featuring any Smart ball screen for Tatum — No. 1 among all combinations with at least 100 reps, per Second Spectrum. The inverse — Tatum screening for Smart — has become perhaps Boston’s go-to play, and it posted even fatter numbers against Brooklyn.
In theory, defenses should duck under Tatum’s picks for Smart — inviting Smart to launch, and avoiding any fatal switch. The Bucks will be better about that than Brooklyn was. But Tatum has made that harder by rolling right into Smart’s man, and dragging that guy into the paint — forcing the switch:
This sort of mismatch chasing should not work as well against the Bucks. They are bigger than the Nets. They don’t play a traditional point guard. But Tatum has had no issues going at Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton, and George Hill (if he plays.) Jevon Carter defends above his size, but he’s no match for Tatum. Even Wesley Matthews is at a disadvantage in speed, agility, and size.
Tatum can also attack Lopez in standard pick-and-rolls, and rain jumpers if Lopez sags back too far.
And with Middleton out, the matchup cat-and-mouse game gets trickier for the Bucks; they are down a wing defender. The Bucks have been starting a bigger lineup of Matthews, Holiday, Antetokounmpo, Bobby Portis, and Brook Lopez. They have surely discussed tweaking that ahead of this series, but the safer bet is Mike Budenholzer sticking at first with what worked against Chicago.
Matthews and Holiday have split the Tatum assignment in the past. It would be ideal to have another switchable defender on Smart — to switch the Tatum-Smart dance — but that is tougher to manage with this big lineup. If Holiday and Matthews are on Smart and Tatum, that means Antetokounmpo has to guard Brown. The Bucks have mostly kept Antetokounmpo away from Brown and Tatum, so that he can rove as a help defender. (He’s better at that than at navigating screens against slippery wings.)
Against the Bulls, Milwaukee had Antetokounmpo defend Chicago’s so-so shooting point guards — Alex Caruso, and then Ayo Dosunmu. They may mimic that against Boston, and open with Antetokounmpo on Smart — allowing Holiday and Matthews to defend Tatum and Brown. I’d wager that’s how Milwaukee begins things: Antetokounmpo on Smart; Portis on Horford; Lopez on Williams III; and Holiday and Matthews flip-flopping between Boston’s All-Stars.
In that alignment, Antetokounmpo will mix things up against the Tatum-Smart two-man game. Sometimes, he’ll duck Tatum’s picks for Smart. Sometimes, he’ll switch. When Tatum is the ball handler, Antetokounmpo might drop back like a traditional center. Without Middleton, Antetokounmpo will have to guard Tatum and Brown at least a bit — either on switches, or now and then as his primary assignment — for Milwaukee to win. (Holiday will also guard Smart here and there.)
Regardless: Whenever Antetokounmpo is on one of Smart, Brown, or Tatum, expect Boston to run him through a gauntlet of screens and cuts.
Of course, we will see Antetokounmpo as part of lineups big, small, and medium sized. Heck, the Bucks could swap Allen (playing so well right now!) in for Portis in the starting five — creating a more traditional two-big lineup in which Antetokounmpo would defend Horford.
The Bucks will use the Antetokounmpo-Portis duo when Lopez rests, and smaller lineups featuring four guards and Antetokounmpo at center. In both those constructions, Antetokounmpo might defend the opposing center (Williams III or Horford) to keep him near the rim.
(Pay close attention to the minutes Antetokounmpo rests. Boston has to win those. At full health, the Bucks would have both Middleton and Holiday on the floor in those stints — and at least two of their big three on the floor at all times. Now they have to survive stretches with only one, and those non-Antetokounmpo minutes can be fraught on offense. They feature lots of Holiday-Lopez pick-and-rolls.)
Lopez is a decent shooter, but not a great one. He typically checks in around 35% on 3s, with a slowish release. (Beware his languid pump-and-drive game, though! It’s sneakily effective.) Boston’s defense took off when coach Ime Udoka made the unconventional choice of stashing Williams III on corner shooters, allowing him to roam the baseline as a shot-blocker.
Lopez often serves as a supersized spot-up threat, sometimes from the corners. Boston could keep things simple, and start Williams III on Lopez, allowing them to play around with Horford’s assignment. Williams III is fast enough to drift from Lopez, ready to pounce in the paint, and still recover to run him off the arc.
Lineups without Lopez — with Portis and Antetokounmpo together, or Antetokounmpo as the only big — bump up Milwaukee’s overall shooting. Milwaukee may need to maximize its shooting to win this series, even if it means cutting into Lopez’s minutes slightly.
The Celtics’ top seven is gigantic. They are long and smart, the league’s best help-and-recover team. They can shade toward Antetokounmpo without conceding wide-open 3s anywhere else. Give them one below-average shooter to stray from, and that makes the job even easier — Antetokounmpo’s path more crowded.
How the Celtics guard Antetokounmpo is the series’ most interesting subplot. They are one of the league’s stingiest transition defense teams — diligent in getting back, well equipped to build the proverbial wall. One benefit of being huge and switchable is not worrying about matchups in transition. Just pick up whoever is closest, and go from there. (Boston was No. 2 — behind only Golden State — in fewest shots allowed at the basket, per Cleaning The Glass. At their best, the Bucks bludgeon the rim.)
Very quietly, Milwaukee’s half-court offense has become much more reliable than two seasons ago and even during the first three rounds of their title run last season. Even so, the first step to beating them is to defang their fast-break attack.
Brown and Horford have taken the bulk of the Antetokounmpo assignment this season and in the past, but Boston will switch a ton and give Smart, Williams, and maybe even Williams III some reps. (Boston has kept Tatum away from Antetokounmpo.)
I’d bet (slightly) on Boston opening with Horford on Antetokounmpo; Brown on Portis; Williams III on Lopez; and Smart and Tatum flipping between Matthews and Holiday. (They could also start Brown on Antetokounmpo, with Horford on Portis.) Everything will be fluid. They are going to show Antetokounmpo a ton of looks, to try to surprise him and keep him off balance.
Antetokounmpo has become Milwaukee’s screen-setting hub. When Horford is on him, Boston might switch or have Horford retreat in a more conventional defense. Horford was once one of the league’s closest things to an Antetokounmpo stopper, but Antetokounmpo solved Horford’s one-on-one defense when Milwaukee obliterated Boston in this same round in 2019. Horford has a better shot defending Antetokounmpo in traditional pick-and-rolls.
Antetokounmpo is too quick for Horford one-on-one. He can (at times) overpower Boston’s guards and wings on switches. If Antetokounmpo catches at the edge of the paint, he can bulldoze even Smart or Brown:
Boston will show help, send double-teams, front the post, and swarm from behind. Antetokounmpo made huge strides this season as passer, whipping the ball out of double-teams early — with the defense still rotating toward him. The Bucks are cagey at cutting during those double-teams, including sneaking along the baseline:
(Yes, that is DeMarcus Cousins, Jabari Parker, and Romeo Langford participating in a Celtics-Bucks game in the current NBA season. The cast of characters who appeared across their four matchups is truly remarkable: Cousins, Parker, Langford, Rodney Hood, Juancho Hernangomez, Jabari Parker, Luke Kornet, Sam Hauser, Javonte Smart, and others.)
But almost every Boston player is stout enough to at least make Antetokounmpo work and suck up time on the shot clock. Against Chicago, Antetokounmpo jogged into easy mismatches; one downstream effect of having Antetokounmpo defend Caruso, Dosunmu, and Nikola Vucevic is that those guys were often stuck on him after Milwaukee stops. Minus the occasional White or Pritchard mismatch, there is no such easy prey on Boston.
The other mystery is how Boston deploys Williams III when Lopez rests — and when both Lopez and Portis sit, leaving Antetokounmpo as the lone big man. Will he ever guard Antetokounmpo one-on-one? Boston has resisted that, preferring Williams III loom as the last line of defense.
But Portis is a better shooter than Lopez. Sloughing too far from him is dangerous, even for someone as fast and hoppy as the Time Lord. On the other hand, having Williams III stick to an outside shooter is a waste of his rim protection.
Would he guard a more stationary wing — Connaughton, Matthews, or Carter? Maybe. (He could even start games on Matthews, since Boston would be fine slotting Tatum onto Portis — leaving Horford on Lopez and Brown on Antetokounmpo. I doubt Boston would go that route — it amounts to getting too cute — but that it’s not outlandish indicates how much flexibility Boston has.)
But I’d like to see Boston try Williams III on Antetokounmpo — just to see how Antetokounmpo handles his length and leaping ability.
Antetokounmpo with shooting and defense around him is enough to make this a competitive series — even without Middleton, his go-to pick-and-roll partner. If Antetokounmpo is a legit 70% or 75% free throw shooter now — his foul shooting has dropped off in past playoffs — there’s no real way to stop him from getting 30 points and eating around the basket. The only hope is to limit his efficiency some, hope the other Bucks don’t get hot from 3, and score pretty well on the other end.
Boston has the ingredients to check all those boxes. Even with Middleton available from the jump, I’d lean to Boston in a long series. Without him, it’s Boston in six.