It's news to no one that if Irving's season in fact does come to an early end, then the Celtics' season will effectively suffer the same fate.
Nevertheless, the show must go on.
The matchups and analysis in this series will remain contingent on a reasonably healthy Kyrie; because without the All-Star guard, the Celtics will have a hard time making it past the first round at all, regardless of who they face.
In the latest edition of "Potential playoff opponents," we will be taking a close look at another team the Celtics could very well meet up with for a first round showdown; the Milwaukee Bucks.
•Record vs. Celtics: 1-2
When discussing the Bucks, the conversation has to begin with 23 year-old superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo; a player so transcendent that I’m almost able to spell his last name without Googling it.
At 6’11” and 222 lbs, the “Greek Freak” can somehow handle the ball like a guard. Already a consensus top ten player in the entire NBA; Antetokounmpo has started the last two All-Star games, and is currently averaging 27.3 points and 10 rebounds per game in the 2017-18 season. He can also do this:
You counted correctly: two dribbles.
To be blunt, the Celtics don’t have a single defender who can shut Giannis down. Jaylen Brown is likely the best option to try to check him, but we’ll surely see a team-oriented strategy.
I imagine Celtics head coach Brad Stevens would take a similar approach to defending Giannis as what San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich did against a young LeBron James in the 2007 NBA Finals.
Giannis, like ’07 LeBron, has just one notable weakness to his game: perimeter shooting. This year, Antetokounmpo is shooting (a career best) 30.3% from three-point range; slightly worse than LeBron’s ’07 three-point success rate of 31.9%.
Antetokounmpo’s combination of size, speed, and athleticism make him nearly impossible to stay in front of for any defender this side of Kawhi Leonard. If the Celtics force Giannis to beat them with his jumpshot, they may be able to limit his production.
I said may be.
Unlike the 2007 Cavaliers, the Bucks have surrounded their young superstar with a quality supporting cast.
The calling-card for Milwaukee is their length. This is a team loaded with tall, athletic, long-armed players at nearly every position.
At the Draft Combine in 2012, center John Henson was listed at 6’10” with an absurd 7’4” wingspan. Henson is now listed at 6’11”, so it’s conceivable that his wingspan grew even longer.
Backup center Thon Maker is listed at 7’1” with a 7’3 ¼” wingspan and weighing 223 lbs. An extremely hyped high school prospect; the Sudanese big man was lauded for his guard-like skills. Maker was drafted 10th overall in 2016, and remains an extremely raw prospect. Though his measurements are impressive, he does not quite have the strength to guard traditional big men just yet. Still, his mobility and long arms will make passing lanes a bit tighter.
Acquired from the Chicago Bulls in what now appears to have been a no-brainer deal for guard Michael Carter-Williams, Tony Snell has become a very solid three-and-d wing. His scoring numbers are modest, just 7.0 ppg this season; but Snell shoots a very proficient 40.3% from deep, and doesn’t need the ball in his hand to impact winning. Standing 6’7” with impressive lateral quickness, Snell can defend many guards and smaller forwards.
Wing Khris Middleton continues to be one of the more underrated players in the NBA. He is currently averaging 20.2 ppg, and has very few weaknesses to his game. The former second round pick from Texas A&M can create off the dribble, catch and shoot, and score on smaller defenders in the post. On defense, Middleton can mostly guard two through four, and is interchangeable with Snell on most defensive switches.
The wildcard for the Bucks is the production they can get from forward Jabari Parker. Prior to a second surgery to, once again, repair his torn left ACL, Parker fit the mold of a legit NBA scorer; averaging 20.1 ppg in 51 games last season; his third in the NBA.
Understandably, Parker’s statistics have taken a bit of a dip since returning. In 20 games thus far, the former 2nd overall pick is averaging only 21.7 minutes per game; as opposed to 33.9 the year prior. Yet his per-36 minutes statistics have stayed relatively consistent:
Last season:21.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.0 apg This season:19.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.7 apg
In addition, Parker’s field goal percentage and three-point percentage have both increased from last season.
It’s a small sample size, but Parker still appears to be a very capable threat; and his stats figure to improve as he gets re-adjusted to the speed of the NBA game. At 6’8” and 250 lbs, I can see Parker spending a lot of time matched up against Marcus Morris on both ends of the floor.
The Bucks certainly have a size advantage over the Celtics, but Parker is the closest thing they have to a low-post threat. They did have a legit post-presence early in the season; but chose to upgrade their point guard position at that expense.
Enter Eric Bledsoe. Unable to carry the load in Phoenix, in November '17; the explosive point guard (once nicknamed “Mini LeBron”) was acquired by Milwaukee for, among other pieces, our new friend Greg Monroe. Currently averaging 17.3 ppg, Bledsoe is an excellent third option; and also an elite subtweeter.
Although Bledsoe is a very good player, I think the trade actually helps the Celtics chances if they were to face Milwaukee in the playoffs. The reason being Monroe’s past success against Boston.
In the eight times Monroe had faced the Celtics since signing with the Bucks in 2015, the center averaged 15.8 ppg and 8.9 rpg on 60.9% shooting. Granted, center Aron Baynes was only around for one of those games; but still, the Celtics had shown no signs of an ability to contain the Moose.
The Bucks also feature a couple of former Celtics in their rotation.
Center Tyler Zeller is still in the NBA; and he happens to play for the Bucks. Don't be surprised if you find yourself ripping your hair out watching Zeller grab offensive rebounds over the relatively undersized Celtics' frontcourt.
Guard Jason Terry is a regular member of the Bucks' rotation as well, but this may be a good thing for Boston. Terry is a Celtic for life, if his tattoo is any indication.
The Celtics aren't alone in their injury woes, as the Bucks are missing two key rotation pieces as well.
Reigning NBA Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon was averaging 13.3 ppg before partially tearing a tendon in his left quad in a February game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Virginia product is expected to return in time for the postseason, but a definitive date has not been set.
As is the case with professional pain in the ass and part time basketball player Matthew Dellavedova; who remains sidelined for an unknown amount of time with a sprained right ankle. It's truly a shame that we won't get to witness a series featuring Dellavedova and Marcus Smart going at it.
All jokes aside, and given their talent; the Bucks have no business being the eight seed that they currently are. The firing of then head coach Jason Kidd on January 22nd was a logical move, but it hasn't paid dividends thus far. Milwaukee is a mediocre 14-12 since the firing.
The main issue is that Milwaukee appears to run their offense without a plan; often letting Antetokounmpo or Bledsoe dribble the air out of the ball, realize the shot clock is running down, and try to make a last second play.
Still, Antetokounmpo is an absolute stud, and he's surrounded with a decent supporting cast. The Bucks have a realistic chance to upset any team they may meet in the first round, based solely on their talent.
I can see a series against the Bucks panning out similarly to last year's first round matchup against the Chicago Bulls. The Celtics are talented, but the Bucks may be able to match them on that front. Still, head coach Brad Stevens will make adjustments, and his Celtics will win the series in seven.
Take my knee, Kyrie.
Main photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE Bucks team photo by Jeff Phelps/NBAE Antetokounmpo photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE