There isn’t much of a rivalry to speak of between the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, but there have been blips.
In the 1986 and 1987 Playoffs, Larry Bird’s Celtics and Sidney Moncrief’s Bucks collided in a couple of classic series. When they met again in the 2018 Playoffs, the young Celtics led by rookie Jason Tatum and sophomore Jaylen Brown solidified their Cinderella run with a seven-game second-round series victory over the Bucks and then first-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Two-time MVP Giannis got some vengeance the following year, trampling the Kyrie Irving-led Celtics in five games.
This upcoming second-round clash will add to a growing list of consequential postseason between both squads. Both are in interesting spots this season: Boston enters the series having rescued their season from the jaws of mediocrity with sheer defensive brilliance, while Milwaukee comes in overlooked in most playoff favorite discourse despite being the defending champs.
The NBA Playoffs, so far, have been the right kind of crazy – tons of excitement but it remains a wide open race. This series could pop out the championship favorite.
Most compelling storyline
Can Giannis Antetokounmpo carry the Bucks?
The answer to this should clearly be a yes, especially if you closely followed last year’s playoffs. Antetokounmpo averaged 30.2 points on 56.9 percent shooting with 12.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.0 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game in their 2021 title run. Along the way, he produced legendary moments, like winning a Game 7 duel against Kevin Durant in the second round and his 55-point masterpiece to close out the Finals against the Phoenix Suns.
Somehow, Antetokounmpo still doesn’t get the level of reverence someone at his level – one of the all-time greats – deserves. He doesn’t get as much love from his peers or fans like someone much less accomplished than him in Kyrie Irving.
This series will serve as a benchmark for Giannis. Reports have indicated that Khris Middleton – the Bucks’ 1B star – won't be available for this series due to an MCL sprain. Antetokounmpo is left with Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez, and Grayson Allen to contend with one of the deepest teams in the league.
If the Bucks come out of this series and Giannis puts up monster numbers, there should be no reason not to regard him as the top player in the league.
Al Horford is a Hall of Fame low-key player. He’s won games and even playoffs series for his teams by doing the little things like defending, stretching the floor, or playmaking in awkward spots.
One of Horford’s superpowers is his ability to defend Giannis. He was the key to stopping Giannis in 2018. Though he’s now 35 years old, don’t put it past Big Al to give Giannis problems. His foot speed is definitely not where it was in 2018, but his strength and instincts are definitely there.
The Celtics threw waves upon waves of bodies at Kevin Durant. It’s going to look a bit different, but expect the same type of strategy to be deployed against Giannis. Horford should be one of the primary walls as Giannis finds himself trying to go through Robert Williams, Grant Williams, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, or some combination of those dudes.
A clear Celtics win would entail forcing Giannis’ teammates to win the game for them.
As indicated above, the Celtics should have all the bodies and the strategy they need to give Giannis problems. The Bucks have a bit more reliable personnel than the Nets, so the Celtics will have to be careful of who they leave open and where they send the help defense from.
On offense, the Celtics’ fluid system that runs through Jayson Tatum should get a good challenge against a better defensive team in the Bucks. They’re not going to have the same amount of chances on the offensive glass against the Bucks, but should still see good looks from the 3-point land, at least until the Bucks are forced to adjust.
Milwaukee is the underdog in this series, but they have the best player. The key to enabling Giannis is going to be the same, Boston's top-tier defense withstanding, which is to spread out and have shooters make their shots. Allen, Holiday, and Pat Connaughton should have enough open looks from 3 from Giannis’ drives. If they continue to torch the net like they did against Chicago, Boston is in for a world of hurt.
And, who knows? This may be a series where Giannis embraces his destiny as the second coming of Shaquille O’Neal and just dominate the paint – regardless of how many bodies drape on him every possession. Don’t count out that possibility.