Basketball series preview: Celtics vs. Bucks, Analysis and Best Bet

The Celtics swept the preseason title favorites Nets in one of the most remarkable first-round series triumphs in recent memory. Next up, the defending champion Bucks, who looked like their old selves in shutting out the Bulls in the first round.
It’s difficult to bet against you when you sweep the preseason title favorite with clutch shooting and suffocating defense. That was the case for the Celtics, who sent a message to the league by winning a four-game series against the Nets to advance to the second round.

That’s not to say the series wasn’t competitive; those four games were decided by a total of 18 points, but Boston looked particularly strong in the first round, particularly in defending Brooklyn’s great scorers. Kevin Durant’s field-goal percentage was 38.6%, which was his third-worst in a playoff series and his lowest since 2016. In the final three games of the series, Boston held Kyrie Irving (21.3 PPG) to a season low of 46 points, significantly below his season average of 27.4.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has guided the Bucks to five consecutive series wins dating back to last postseason, will be their next opponent. In the final three games of Milwaukee’s series win over the Bulls, the reigning NBA Finals MVP was a one-man wrecking squad, as the Bulls were hobbling by the end without their two best perimeter defenders and one of the league’s top scorers in Zach LaVine.

The Bucks will not be at full strength for this series, as Khris Middleton (knee) is expected to miss the entire second round after missing the previous three games. Without Middleton as a secondary scorer to put pressure on the C’s defense, Boston is free to swarm Antetokounmpo with several defenders, similar to how they disrupted Durant in the first round.

The Celtics’ defensive strategy isn’t just about volume. Marcus Smart, the first guard to win Defensive Player of the Year since 1996, and Robert Williams, who was one of the favorites to win the award before a late-season injury, lead this group of elite defenders. Those two will be key in shutting down the Bucks’ two-time MVP, who has a history of wrecking havoc on the Celtics in the playoffs.

The Celtics have the depth and high-end skill to clinch a position in the Eastern Conference finals if they can restrict Antetokounmpo from winning the series on his own. Boston has gone on a 32-7 run since Smart returned from a long absence on Jan. 23, outscoring opponents by 13.9 points per game. Even with Williams out for the final seven games, this club had the greatest offensive rating (122.6) and third-best defensive rating (109.9) in the NBA from the All-Star break through the completion of the regular season.

Jayson Tatum put on a show against the Nets, averaging 29.5 points and hitting the game-winning shot in Game 1, while teammate Jaylen Brown scored at least 22 points in each of the four games. Brooklyn lacked the perimeter defensive skills to deal with Milwaukee’s height and shot-making talent, but does Milwaukee? Due to the absence of Middleton, the Bucks’ top wing defender, there aren’t enough bodies to throw at Tatum or Brown without leaving the Milwaukee defense open to the other.

There’s always the possibility that Antetokounmpo will make all of the above outdated, and that’s the risk you face when you gamble against an all-time great. This Celtics team, on the other hand, is shaping up to be one of the most complete playoff teams we’ve seen in a long time, and it won’t take them seven games to prove it.

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