8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Bucks -7.5, Over/Under: 220
With the First Round now in the rearview mirror, the Playoffs are heating up as the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks are on the defensive against the Fourth-Seeded Boston Celtics, who look to take a commanding 2-0 lead in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals from Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After a relatively uneven Regular Season in which they ultimately failed to reach the lofty expectations placed upon them, the Celtics (49-33, 4th in Eastern Conference) unsurprisingly appear to be right at home in the Playoffs, where they have now won five consecutive contests. Let’s not forget that this team had previously advanced to each of the past two Eastern Conference Finals with a rotating cast of characters, and as opposed to last year, they’re finally healthy and proving what they can truly be now that all the pieces have been put in their proper place. Despite finishing only Fourth in the East, setting up a First Round date with Indiana Pacers was about the most advantageous thing that could have happened to Brad Stevens’ charges. The Pacers had been playing without the services their lone All-Star, Victor Oladipo, for months and were doing everything in their power just keep their collective heads above water. If there was ever a setting for the Celtics to get their s@#$ together, then this was it. And did they ever; the four-game sweep saw Boston flex their muscles, particularly on the defensive end, where they relegated Indiana to a dismal 91.8 Points per Game on 40.1% shooting from the field, including 33.6% from beyond the arc, while battering them on the glass (Plus-7.5 REB), and permitting 20.8 Assists in comparison to forcing 11.3 Turnovers. Apart from rebounding, the biggest disparity between these teams was in Three-Point Shooting, where the favorites really made an impression, knocking down 39.8% of their attempts from downtown, with a number of players stepping to torment them from long-range throughout the Series. Kyrie Irving (23.8 PTS, 48.7% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 6.9 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.5 BLK, 24.3 PER) was easily the most prolific, netting 11-of-26 attempts (42.3%), while Sophomore Wingman, Jayson Tatum (15.7 PTS, 45.0% FG, 37.3% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.7 BLK, 15.1PER), finished the set 8-of-15 (53.3%), with Gordon Hayward (11.5 PTS, 46.6% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 3.4 AST, 0.9 STL, 15.6 PER) sinking 4-of-9 (44.4%) off the Bench. Six different Celtics averaged in double-figures scoring in the First Round triumph, including both Irving (22.5 P/G) and Hayward (12.3 P/G) who each missed last year’s Playoff Run due to various injuries.
Though they disposed of the Pacers with relative ease, this looming Series with the Bucks was to be a different story, for after all, Milwaukee finished the Regular Season with the league’s best record, ultimately occupying the position in the Eastern Conference that many felt belonged to the Celtics in this Post-LeBron James Era of Basketball in the East. After Game One of this Series, those people may want to adjust their opinion, for Boston clearly looked like the better side in Sunday’s shocking 112-90 victory. The visitors set the tone early, leading by as many as Eleven Points in the First Quarter, in which they shot a stellar 52.0% from the field, while the hosts could muster just 26.3% themselves. This matchup proved to be every bit as lopsided as the final score would indicate, with Steven’s troops shooting a blistering 54.0% overall, including 13-of-31 from downtown (41.9%), while yielding just 34.8% shooting from the floor, including 13-of-39 from three (33.3%). Irving scored a game-high Twenty-Six Points on a stellar 12-of-21 shooting (57.1%), including 2-of-5 from the perimeter (40.0%), and matched a postseason career-high with Eleven Assists. Al Horford (13.6 PTS, 53.5% FG, 36.0% 3FG, 6.7 REB, 4.2 AST, 0.9 STL, 1.3 BLK, 20.2 PER) played a pivotal role in their success, totaling Twenty Points on 8-of-16 shooting (50.0%), including 3-of-5 from beyond the arc (60.0%), Eleven Rebounds, Three Assists, a Steal, and Three Blocks, all the while providing excellent defense against Milwaukee’s MVP Candidate, Giannis Antetokounmpo (who we’ll get into shortly). There was a particular possession in the Third Quarter that encapsulated the performance perfectly, with the Greek Phenom driving toward the rim only to be met by the five-time All-Star Center, who blocked him on successive shot attempts. Furthermore, the youngsters that were so integral throughout last year’s run to the East Finals, flourished in a supporting role, with Jaylen Brown (13.0 PTS, 46.5% FG, 34.4% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.9 AST, 0.4 BLK, 13.5 PER) added Nineteen Points on 8-of-14 shooting (57.1%), while the Terry Rozier (9.0 PTS, 38.7% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 2.9 AST, 0.9 STL, 12.9 PER) and the aforementioned Hayward produced off the Bench with a cumulative Twenty-Four Points on 9-of-16 shooting (56.3%), Thirteen Rebounds, Eight Assists, a Steal, and a Block.
Meanwhile, the basketball renaissance may be beginning to fade in Milwaukee, with the Bucks (60-22, 1st in Eastern Conference) now facing their greatest test in the form of the Celtics in the Eastern Semifinals. After pacing the league with an NBA-best Sixty Wins, reaching that mark for the first time in franchise history since the early 1970s, and most recently winning their first Playoff Series since 2001, this is the first time this season in which Mike Budenholzer’s charges will be faced with any true opposition. In his first year with the team, Budenholzer has done a masterful job of making all of the pieces fit around the aforementioned Antetokounmpo (27.7 PTS, 578.8% FG, 25.6% 3FG, 12.5 REB, 5.9 AST, 1.STL, 1.5 BLK, 30.9 PER), who in a far more efficient system predicated on proper spacing has taken his ridiculous game to another level altogether. The role players too have benefitted greatly by this change in strategy, with the likes of Eric Bledsoe (15.9 PTS, 48.4% FG, 32.9% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 5.5 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.4 BLK, 19.3 PER) and Kris Middleton (18.3 PTS, 44.1% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 4.3 AST, 1.0 STL, 16.5 PER) enjoying career campaigns, while the additions of journeymen such as Brook Lopez (12.5 PTS, 45.2% FG, 36.5% 3FG, 4.9 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.6 STL, 2.2 BLK, 14.6 PER) and Nikola Mirotic (11.6 PTS, 41.5% FG, 35.6% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.6 BLK, 16.2 PER) have helped breathe new life into their respective careers. They were all on display throughout Milwaukee’s comfortable four-game sweep of their Central Division rival, the Detroit Pistons, who simply couldn’t muster the requisite challenge to threaten the Bucks at any point of the affair. Only one of the four contests was decided by fewer than Twenty Points, and even that one wasn’t close (119-103), with the East’s Top Seed outscoring the Eighth by an average margin of 23.8 Points per Game. It would be hard to picture this team playing any better, shooting a scorching 51.0% from the field, including 37.0% from downtown, while obliterating Detroit from the Charity Stripe, where they knocked down 85-of-112 Free-Throws, nearly forty more than their counterpart. Furthermore, they hammered them on the glass, outrebounding the Pistons by 11.0 Boards per Game, while dishing out a healthy 28.5 Assists in comparison to committing 13.5 Turnovers. Antetokounmpo was fantastic, filling up the stat sheet with 26.3 Points on 52.1% shooting, 12.0 Rebounds, 3.5 Assists, 0.8 Steals, and 1.5 Blocks, while the aforementioned Bledsoe and Middleton added 19.3 and 19.0 Points respectively, with the former logging 4.0 Rebounds, 5.3 Assists, and 2.0 Steals, and the latter catching fire from long-range, shooting 45.8% from beyond the arc. Granted, Detroit played all but one entry of the Series without the services of their All-Star Forward, Blake Griffin, who was sidelined with bulky knee, but Milwaukee have been without the presence of one Malcolm Brogdon (15.6 PTS, 50.5% FG, 42.6% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 3.2 AST, 0.7 STL, 17.8 PER), who has missed over two months now with a heel injury.
It’s remarkable as to how quickly things can change in the Playoffs, for as unbeatable as the Bucks appeared to be in their romp over the Pistons in the First Round, they looked damn-near helpless at times in Sunday’s 90-112 drubbing at the hands of the Celtics. As we touched upon in the opening, the hosts fell behind early, and despite a 15-0 run that allowed them to cut the deficit to 50-52 at Halftime, they were overwhelmed in the Third Quarter, in which the visitors outscored them 36-21. Antetokounmpo had a really rough showing, scoring a team-high Twenty-Two Points, but achieved that total on a disappointing 7-of-21 shooting (33.3%), while missing half of his Ten Free-Throw Attempts. This certainly looked like a case of an inexperienced team faltering against a far more experienced opponent, then again, we saw this matchup one year ago, as Boston eliminated Milwaukee in seven games in the First Round of the 2018 Playoffs. Granted, both teams have changed dramatically since then, but it nonetheless appears that Brad Stevens & Co. have devised a tested gameplan towards slowing down the Greek Freak. However, it wasn’t just Antetokounmpo who struggled in Game One, for the Bucks as a whole just couldn’t figure out how to get things going on the offensive end of the court; the home side shot a miserable 34.8% from the field, including 13-of-39 from beyond the arc (33.3%), missed nine of their Twenty-Four Free-Throw Attempts, and were bludgeoned on the glass (Minus-7). Bledsoe was practically invisible, scoring a mere Six Points on 1-of-5 shooting (20.0%), while Lopez had half of that total on a similar shooting display. Middleton had Sixteen Points, with just about all of his damage coming from long-range, where he knocked down 3-of-4 attempts (75.0%). Budenholzer would probably love to get the aforementioned Brogdon back on the court, with the 2017 Rookie of the Year projected to miss the first two outings of this Series. The two-way dynamo took part in Shootaround before Sunday’s affair, and will be re-evaluated before tonight’s meeting.