The second-seeded Boston Celtics and third-seeded Milwaukee Bucks meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Boston and Milwaukee beat the Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls in the first round, respectively.
How they got here
Boston Celtics (51-31)
The Celtics enjoyed one of the greatest in-season turnarounds in recent memory, transforming from a borderline play-in tournament team in 2021 to the best team in basketball in 2022, statistically speaking. Their defense is impeccable under first-year coach Ime Udoka, and Jayson Tatum emerged as a bona fide MVP candidate at the helm of an eight-man rotation full of length and versatility on both ends of the court.
It was all on display in their first-round series against the Nets. Boston swarmed both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, daring Brooklyn’s woeful supporting cast to make enough plays to remain competitive, and even then the Celtics did not make it easy on anyone. The result was a first-round sweep that left everyone who watched to wonder whether Tatum has surpassed the 32-year-old Durant on the NBA’s hierarchy.
The Celtics also reintegrated Robert Williams III three weeks after his meniscus surgery, adding one of their best defensive pieces to a roster full of them, and then gifted him another week of rest. Their starting lineup of Tatum, Williams, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Al Horford has lost once since January (by a single possession). No other team enters the second round with the continuity and momentum Boston is riding.
Milwaukee Bucks (51-31)
The Bucks set their title defense to cruise control in the regular season, stepping on the gas whenever necessary and ultimately hitting the brakes to avoid a first-round series against the Nets. The approach allowed Grayson Allen to familiarize himself with the system and Brook Lopez to take every precaution with his back injury. Such is the luxury of having Giannis Antetokounmpo, the best player in basketball.
They handled the Bulls in the opening round, as expected, losing just once on DeMar DeRozan’s inevitable 41-point outing and still registering a 94.4 defensive rating — at least 10 points per 100 possessions better than the rest of the playoff field. Antetokounmpo averaged 29 points on 57% shooting, living at the rim and drawing enough defensive attention for his teammates to shoot 38% on 37 3-point attempts per game.
The plan worked to perfection, save for Khris Middleton’s MCL sprain, which is expected to keep the three-time All-Star out for the second round. George Hill’s status also remains unclear, as he battles abdominal and back issues that have sidelined him since April 8. Milwaukee’s midseason swap of Donte DiVinencenzo for Serge Ibaka, who could not carve out a meaningful role against the Bulls, looms large in their absence.
Head to head
The Celtics and Bucks tied their regular-season series, 2-2.
None of their games provided a window into what this series might look like. Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday did not play in their first meeting on Nov. 12, when the Celtics won in overtime, and three of their four games came when Boston was still allocating big minutes to the likes of Dennis Schroder, Josh Richardson and Romeo Langford, among others who are either not on the team or out of the rotation . Likewise, Tatum, Williams and Horford were all on the bench for their fourth and final showdown on April 7.
The Celtics have options outside their starting lineup of Tatum, Brown, Smart, Horford and Williams, which outscored opponents by an astounding 24.6 points per 100 possessions over 443 regular-season minutes. Much will depend on the ability of Williams and Horford to help defend Antetokounmpo and recover onto perimeter shooters, given their respective health and age. Grant Williams can spell either in the frontcourt, and Derrick White is an alternative in smaller lineups. Every combination can be devastating on both ends.
Middleton’s absence means Antetokounmpo and Holiday are the only Bucks guaranteed to close games. Lopez and Pat Connaughton were mainstays of Milwaukee’s crunch-time lineups last season, and they still have coach Mike Budenholzer’s trust, until either proves ineffective against Boston’s length and athleticism.
PJ Tucker was the tie that bound last year’s closing lineup, and he is gone. Bobby Portis has size and has started alongside Lopez, but together they could have a tough time chasing Boston’s ball movement. Allen and Wesley Matthews are options in smaller combinations that present their own limitations. The Bucks will spend much of the series searching for the most capable quintet and riding what feels right each night.
Matchup to watch
The Celtics will employ the same wall of defenders against Antetokounmpo that held firm against him in the 2018 playoffs and crumbled in 2019. Horford would sprint to the free-throw line as a second line of defense, as Tatum, Brown, Smart and company steered him to the middle. Robert Williams provides a third layer of protection, hedging from the corner for added rim protection. Nothing will come easy for Antetokounmpo.
How much help Boston’s primary defenders have to show the two-time MVP will dictate how open his teammates are — and likely determine the series. Grant Williams defended Antetokounmpo more than anyone on the Celtics during the regular season to some success, just as he did against Durant in the first round. Tatum took on the responsibility of defending Durant and could see stopping another superstar as his calling, if he wants to establish himself as the alpha. Most likely, Antetokounmpo will see a variety of on-ball defenders, including Brown and Smart, all of whom are capable of providing considerable resistance.
If any of the Celtics or a rotating cast of them can prevent Antetokounmpo from drawing two or three defenders in the paint, the Bucks will see their title defense end in the second round of these playoffs.
Boston Celtics (-185)
Milwaukee Bucks (+150)
Celtics in six.
– – – – – – –
Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach