The Boston Celtics were the only team to sweep their opponent out of the playoffs in the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs. Now after waiting a few days to see who their opponent in the second-round would be, they finally have their answer.
On Sunday at 1 PM EST, the Milwaukee Bucks will be making their way to town for Game One of the two teams’ Eastern Conference Semifinals series. The Bucks were largely suspected to be the opponent, as the Chicago Bulls turned out to be a less than formidable foe, but now it’s official. Two of the top teams in the league will go toe-to-toe, with a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals on the line.
For both squads, this will offer a much improved level of competition from their first round opponent. The Brooklyn Nets lacked any sort of depth to truly challenge Boston, while the Bulls showed some fight over the first two games of the series before ultimately reverting back to their second-half struggles.
For as good as the Boston Celtics have looked recently, going against the Bucks isn’t going to be a walk in the park. The Bucks have one of the best players in the league on their roster in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and slowing him down is going to be key for the C’s. Luckily, they should be able to formulate a gameplan that ensures Antetokounmpo will have to work for every shot he takes.
The Boston Celtics need to devote their defensive resources towards slowing down Giannis Antetokounmpo
For much of the first round, the storyline from the Celtics/Nets series was focused on the Nets scoring struggles, particularly when it came to Kevin Durant. Boston was throwing multiple bodies at him on seemingly every possession, and he was struggling to get any sort of room for open looks. It’s telling that his best game of the series came on a night where shot 13-31 from the field.
Durant is one of the best scorers in the league, in part because he can kill you from all three levels of the floor. Yet he spent most of four game series against the Boston Celtics looking lost. He was missing shots no matter where he was taking them, and he was turning the ball over at an alarming rate.
If it worked against Durant, it could work against Antetokounmpo, right? In some ways, yes. Antetokounmpo is a much different threat than Durant in that he’s a much stronger finisher at the rim, but he shoots below 30 percent from behind the arc. However, throwing multiple bodies at Antetokounmpo may prove to be the most effective strategy to limit his runs to the rim.
The problem is Antetokounmpo has a much stronger supporting cast than Durant did with Brooklyn. Kyrie Irving lurked as a dangerous threat that also needed to contained, but for the most part Marcus Smart was able to lock him up. Guys like Seth Curry, Patty Mills, and Goran Dragic were worth worrying about at the perimeter from time to time, but the overall goal was to limit Durant.
With the Bucks that may not necessarily be possible. While not having Khris Middleton, who is reportedly expected to miss the entire series now, will hurt, Milwaukee still has enough firepower to support Antetokounmpo.
Jrue Holiday will be crucial to Milwaukee’s offensive gameplan this series. He’s a bit of a streaky scorer from time to time, but his control of the offense from the point guard position has helped the Bucks offense tick all season long. If Antetokounmpo gets doubled, Holiday is going to have to step up in a big way for the Bucks.
Other names worth watching for are Bobby Portis, Brook Lopez, Grayson Allen, and Pat Connaughton. These guys can all score from all over the floor and serve as spacers to let Antetokounmpo go to work. The question is whether or not you leave them open for threes or leave Antetokounmpo in a one-on-one matchup.
The thing is, the Boston Celtics have the personnel to defend Antetokounmpo in a rather unique way. They have a ton of players they can stick on Antetokounmpo, similar to how a number of different players rotated on and off Durant through their first-round series. Jayson Tatum primarily got the call, but it wasn’t abnormal to see Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, and even Grant Williams get tasked with shutting him down throughout the first round.
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Considering how both Portis and Lopez tend to start for Milwaukee, Horford and Robert Williams will most likely draw them as their assignment. Portis is a better shooter than Lopez while also being a bit more agile, so Horford will probably stay with him, while Williams will keep an eye on Lopez while also tracking back towards the paint when needed too.
This is going to be key, and it’s why having Williams back is so important. Boston’s defense took off when Ime Udoka put Williams on their opponent’s worst shooter and let him kind of roam between the paint and perimeter as he pleases. Assuming Antetokounmpo is left one-on-one, how Williams decides to help in his free-roaming role is going to be crucial. (This is all contingent on Williams actually starting of course).
In terms of the rest of the assignments, Smart will draw Holiday, and Brown will most likely guard Wesley Matthews, who has been filling in for Middleton. This once again leaves Tatum on the opposing team’s best player for the second series in a row. Considering how good Tatum was on defense in the first series, that’s not exactly a bad thing.
This is how I expect things to go to open the series. Even if Tatum doesn’t stick on Antetokounmpo for the whole game, it’s not a huge deal. For example, if Boston is getting lit up on the perimeter, they could easily switch Tatum and Horford, and have Horford play off Antetokounmpo and dare him to shoot threes. Horford has defended Antetokounmpo in previous playoff meetings before these two teams, and has done an exceptional job in the process.
It won’t be easy, but if there’s one team that has the firepower to slow down Milwaukee, it’s Boston. They have the length to throw Antetokounmpo a bevy of different looks throughout the series, while also having the depth to limit his supporting cast too. How the Boston Celtics slow down Antetokounmpo is the biggest key in their upcoming series; the good news is that they are well prepared to give him and the Bucks their best punch.