Although there is no doubt that the majority of people are going to see Milwaukee as the favorites to win the series, I believe that it is going to be a lot closer than people think. I certainly expect it to be a tough test for the Celtics, However, I do believe the Celtics can once again cause problems for the Bucks. Milwaukee has undeniably been one of the best teams in the league this year, but I can honestly see the Celtics having too much class for the Bucks match.
Basketball is a funny sport. The Milwaukee Bucks are the best team that Boston will face in the east but they're not the team they should fear the most. Don't get me wrong, with a competent coach and increased offensive options, Milwaukee are a different animal this year from the team that an injury-struck Boston bounced en route to the ECF. However, in contrast to the Kawhi-led, deep Raptors squad, the Bucks can be neutralized by the matchups available in this Boston team and for that reason:
I follow a few beat writers for the Bucks on Twitter and they are, rightfully so, always complaining about how underappreciated Milwaukee is in the eyes of the national media. The Celtics were the media darlings before the season began, and Toronto has so often been the pick of so many talking heads. Meanwhile, the Bucks put together an incredible regular season (60 wins!!) on the back of a once-in-a-lifetime talent, a supporting cast that is made up of a number of players having career seasons (i.e. Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez), and a new head coach/front office that has built a team around the skill set of Giannis. All signs point to the fact that this team is built to run through the NBA, the Celtics included. And with that being said...I'm still riding with the C's! There are two keys to winning this series for Boston, Gordon Hayward has to continue to be a difference maker, and they need to limit Bledsoe. If those two things happen, and you can continue to get meaningful contributions from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
This series is all about matchups, and adaptation. As we've seen over the last two years, Boston has had a fair amount of success forcing Giannis into becoming a jump shooter through the outstanding defense of Al Horford and Semi Ojeleye. There was concern about the Bucks adding Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic to help space the floor for Giannis, but to date have proven exploitable on offense. The likely absence of Malcolm Brogdon early in this season may be offset by the loss of Marcus Smart for much if not all of the series, but hurts the Bucks more, at least on paper. Whether Milwaukee can find a way to counter Boston's approach, and whether Gordon Hayward can add something of an "x" factor may prove far more crucial in determining what may be the premier series in the Eastern Conference.
I'd feel a lot more optimistic about this series if Boston had home-court advantage, the C's have struggled for years to win on the road in the playoffs. They do already have more away Ws in this postseason than they had in last season's run to Game 7 of the ECF, but how much stock can we really put in the sweep of the Pacers? Even though I want to believe they're finally reaching their potential, it's really hard to ignore what we saw in the previous 82 games.
As much as I hate to admit it, we don't have any evidence to suggest the Celtics can play their A-game consistently enough to win all three at home and one in Milwaukee. Boston had moments of defensive intensity in each contest against Indiana that were enough to stifle the Pacers. If the C's do that for four complete games, they have a good shot against the Bucks.
Really it will probably just come down to who makes the most threes, and my guess is that'll be Milwaukee.
Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are the two anchors that will keep the Celtics from getting swept away. Gordon Hayward is healthy, and Terry Rozier is back to the terror on defense that we knew he could be.
If the two Jay-Team members can click at the same time, Boston can take this series. They are peaking at the right time. Hey, this is the playoffs, and anything can happen. Brad Stevens is being coy about using Semi Ojeleye against The Greek Freak. My guess is that he will do so, but that he has something up his sleeve to quell that running spin-move-in-the-lane that Giannis relies on so much.
The Celtics take one of the two games in Milwaukee - both games at home - lose Game Five - and then are victorious in Game Six at TD Garden.
If this series took place in mid-January I would take the Bucks in a sweep. But after beating a shorthanded Pacers team, the Celtics have some momentum as they travel to Milwaukee. On paper the Bucks clearly have the best overall player in Giannis Antetokounmpo, a top-two MVP candidate in a league full or superstars.
The C's arguably could have the next two most talented players in the seires in Kyire Irving and Al Horford. A case could be made that Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward are better overall talent than Kris Middelton who made his first All-Star team this season. But even if you give Middelton the nod for the third best player in the series, the Bucks and Celtics still match up pretty evenly. The injury to Malcolm Brogdon hurts the depth of the Bucks.
Hayward and Jaylen Brown remain the biggest x-factors for the Celts. If Hayward can duplicate the effort he did in Game 4, and Brown mirrors what he did in Game 3 against Indiana, the C's will be hard to beat, no matter how well Giannis plays.
Speaking of the Greek Freak. The key for the Celtics should be to let others beat them. Giannis will drop 28 plus on a bad night. Containing the likes of Middelton, Eric Bledsoe, and Nikola Mirotic will be huge for Boston.
With all that being said, if I were to pick with my green goggles on I would say Celts in 7. (I am in a way making two picks, which is a real shady move).
But the Bucks are a different beast compared to the Pacers, whose offense was embarrassing to watch at times. Outscoring Milwaukee will be tough, unless the C's are firing on all cylinders.