At the time of the definition of the playoff scoreboard, the possible cross between Boston and Milwaukee in the second round had immediately appeared as one of the most interesting. The two teams, closed the regular season with an identical record of 51-31 and due to which it was necessary to resort to 5th tiebreaker to assign placings, they promised to create a very balanced challenge. The injuries of Khris Middleton and the intermittent availability of Marcus Smart and Robert Williams have deprived the series of important protagonists, but the four games played so far have not disappointed expectations.
Somehow the battle between Celtics and Bucks seemed like a contemporary version of the strong defensive series that had characterized the playoffs in the late 1990s and early 2000s and experienced their sublimation in the seven races between Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs in the 2005 Finals. And if it is perhaps an exaggeration to call Celtics-Bucks an early final, it is not to argue that whoever wins it will be able to put forward his candidacy to represent the Eastern Conference at the end of the season.
Although the confrontation on the benches saw in Ime Udoka an absolute rookie and in Mike Budenholzer a coach who, rightly or wrongly, is not recognized great ability to read games, the first part of the series was a long game of chess played on parquet. The two coaches, strong on the roster with very few weak links from a defensive point of view – perhaps only Payton Pritchard and Daniel Theis on one side, Grayson Allen and Bobby Portis on the other -, approached the first two games placing emphasis on attention in doing the things that are best done and even more in observing the opponent’s moves. So in race-1 the Bucks started with the extra-large quintet and the frontline formed by Antetokounmpo, Portis and Lopez in order to consolidate the defense of the painted, their strong point for three seasons now, while pressing the opposing ball carriers in the attempt to exploit the absence of real ball handler in the Celtics. Boston, unable to get close to the iron, was forced to take 50 triples and shoot with a measly 33.3% overall from the field, closing with a measly 10/34 from two points. The 18 turnovers by Udoka’s boys and Antetokounmpo’s ability to take advantage of constant double-ups and find free teammates completed the work.
Creative assists and where to find them.
In a sort of mirror replica, in race-2 it was Udoka who got all the adjustments right, starting with the decision to abandon the constant doubling on Antetokounmpo to focus instead on the individual defense of Grant Williams in transition and Al Horford in the possessions at half court. The decision drastically lowered the quality of the shots available to the Bucks, resulting in an overall defensive rating (91.5) almost at the level of the frightening one (89) held by Milwaukee in Game-1, allowing them to control a game in fact already decided at the long interval and sealed by 46.5% from behind the three-point line, the result in large part of the excellent shooting performances of the duo Brown-Tatum and Grant Williams.
Four Celtics touch the ball before reaching the open triple for Brown.
Giannis against everyone, Horford against Kronos
As often happens, a series initially played on reciprocal adjustments then took a more discontinuous trend and linked to the performance of individuals. If the first two games were used by the coaching staff to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent, from then on the confrontation was played on the ability of the attacks to score despite the pressure of the defenses. And in game-3 the Celtics risked winning away in spite of Tatum’s worst performance this season (10 points, 4/19 shooting, 1 rebound and 3 turnovers in 41 minutes), whose difficulties weighed heavily on the marking of a possessed Wes Matthews (zero points scored on 9 attempts when it was the former Portland and Dallas who marked the Boston star).
On the other hand, for the Bucks, the limits of an attack without Middleton emerged and in which Allen’s paucity, impalpable in attack and focused on every possession in defense, forced Holiday to take 30 shots, making with 36.7%, and Budenholzer to leave Pat Connaughton on the field more than expected. The monstrous performance of Antetokunmpo, 2 assists from a triple double with 42 points and 12 rebounds, and the clock then decided on a challenge that had changed owners 15 times in 48 minutes.
Giannis remains paired with Brown and transforms into Rudolf Nureyev.
Speaking of monstrous performances, race-4 saw the distinguished professor Al Horford take the chair. Once again without Robert Williams struggling with the usual spiteful knee, the Celtics have entrusted him with the care of Antetokounmpo, leaving the other Williams on Holiday so that he can be effective on every change in the two games between Giannis and Jrue, but they also asked him to take important shots in key moments of the match. Scheduled the Delorean to return in the 2015 year of grace, Big Al churned out his season high at 30 and led the Celtics into the 4th quarter snatch scoring 16 points without missing a shot. The Bucks, sunk from 19/54 sent on the scoresheet by the Antetokounmpo-Holiday duo, failed to exploit the rebound advantage (48-38) and ended up succumbing to the sensational defense in transition in Boston.
Horford who takes Giannis for a walk, crushes him on the head and also takes the foul: all normal at almost 36 years old.
Infirmaries and whistles
Imagining what could happen now is almost impossible, also because the series is subject to a series of factors that cannot be foreseen at the moment. Starting with the injuries, which for the Celtics leave doubts about the real conditions of Smart, on the pitch in the last two but evidently limited, and of Robert Williams, whose presence is essential to avoid overloading Horford. As for the Bucks, should the team find themselves cornered after Game-6, it is not impossible to hypothesize a forcing of Middleton’s recovery times, even if at the moment his return seems unlikely and it would have the taste of a move of despair.
The other factor that could weigh in the continuation of the challenge is the referee meter, so far not exactly homogeneous during the matches and even less between one match and another. Although it is evident the difficulty in refereing such a physical series and characterized by defenses always on the verge of infringement, on many aspects, from the use of the external arm by Giannis in attack to the judgment on the positioning of the defenders in the contacts considered as breakthroughsthe line of referees seemed inscrutable, often to the detriment of the continuity of the game rather than the individual parties involved.
Things to do to win (or at least try)
To win what now turns into a best-of-three match in which Boston has regained the home factor, there are some trends that the two teams, in the wake of what they saw in the first four challenges, should ride or vice versa try to reverse. . The Celtics, especially if Robert Williams’ absence is prolonged, will need to have access to the vintage version of Horford seen so far in the playoffs, really essential for Udoka on both sides of the pitch. In attack, then, Boston will need the supporting cast to be ready on the exhausts of Brown, Smart and Tatum. Grant Williams and Derrick White will have to score continuously when called into question, especially in corner triples where against the Bucks Williams he is already shooting with 53.5% while White is barely flirting with 30%. Finally, the Celtics, to overcome the obstacle Milwaukee will need their best player, who is struggling to shoot (38.3% in the series for Tatum), to continue to be lethal when it comes time to decide the result (66.7% from the field and +27.7 of net rating for Tatum in the last quarters, often decisive, of the four games).
When the going gets tough, Tatum scores in stunt.
The hopes of the Bucks are instead first of all linked to the shooting percentages of Jrue Holiday, who in the first four episodes of the series has put together a little comforting 33.7% from the field. Without Middleton, the reigning champions cannot afford such inaccuracy from what automatically becomes their best ball carrier, especially in relation to the massive volume of shots taken by the former Philadelphia and New Orleans. The void generated by the absence of Middleton, in theory, should be filled, at least in part, by Allen who, however, as already mentioned, for now has been a factor only in race-1, where he managed to make good use of the space allowed. from the opposing defense struggling with the physicality of Antetokounmpo and Holiday.
Smart undecided whether to double on Giannis and plenty of space for Allen.
Come per i Celtics, it goes without saying, even the Bucks will need their best player in top form. Giannis is playing a series of absolute level (32 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists on average), but the impression is that he is able to further increase the engine revs and, a bit like happened during the Finals 2021, he can carry the whole team on their shoulders. A little more attention to shot selection and a few less burrs in offensive readings could make him completely unstoppable, assuming he isn’t already. In the third quarter of game-4 he had entered “world destroyer” mode scoring 13 points and bringing all of Massachusetts to iron, but ended up paying for the Herculean effort with a fourth period of 6 points, 3/7 on the shot and 2 turnovers: managing his energy will be essential to not overload him too much, because playing 48 minutes of continuous penetration to the iron (especially considering the contacts in this series) would exhaust anyone, even someone like him.
For us, neutral spectators or fans, all that remains is to enjoy what remains of a series that may not be pleasant from an aesthetic point of view, and which nevertheless confronts two teams ready to compete for every ball and make the opponent sweat every single basket. . Always keeping in mind that old motto about the attack that sells the tickets and the defense does that other thing. Also because both Boston and Milwaukee, with full legitimacy, aim to play until late June, but to get there they will first have to eliminate the other. However it turns out it will not be an easy undertaking.