Defense could decide showdown between Bucks, Celtics

NBA.com Global on Apr 14, 2018 04:04 PM
Defense could decide showdown between Bucks, Celtics
FILE - MEMPHIS, TN - MARCH 12: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks shoots a free throw against the Memphis Grizzlies on March 12, 2018 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com

The Boston Celtics have been the picture of resiliency this season. After returning only four players from last season's roster and losing Gordon Hayward in the first six minutes of their first game of 2017-18, they won 16 straight games and had an elite defense throughout the season. Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart all missed more than 20 games, they've needed to call on as many as four undrafted rookies for rotation minutes at one point or the other ... and they still finished second in the Eastern Conference (with more wins than they had last season).

Of course, with all their injuries, the Celtics look like a vulnerable No. 2 seed. Irving and Daniel Theis are out for the entire postseason, and Smart is likely out for most of the first round. The question is if the Milwaukee Bucks have what it takes to take advantage.

In Giannis Antetokounmpo's fifth season, the Bucks took a step forward offensively, but had the same defensive issues (too many layups) that they've had in the past. And firing Jason Kidd in January didn't change things all that dramatically. Still, the Bucks have the talent to beat good teams. They had wins over 11 of the 14 teams that finished with more wins than they did, with potent offensive numbers (113 points scored per 100 possessions) in those 15 wins.

On one end of the floor, we'll have the league's No. 1 defense trying to stop a top-10 offense. It may be the other end of the floor that determines the winner of this series.

3 quick questions and answers

1. Can the Celtics score without Kyrie Irving? Not very efficiently, no. Boston scored just 103 points per 100 possessions, a rate which would rank 25th in the league, in the 22 games they played without Irving. But they were 14-8 in those games (6-5 vs. playoff teams), because their defense remained at an elite level. Without Irving, they depend on Terry Rozier to create off the dribble, but also play through Al Horford, Marcus Morris and Greg Monroe in the post.

2. Who gets the Antetokounmpo assignment? Interestingly, Horford defended Antetokounmpo most in the regular season meetings (94 of 223 possessions). They're two very different players, but in their team's most common starting lineups, they both play power forward. And because Antetokounmpo doesn't shoot well from the perimeter, Horford doesn't have to chase him out on the perimeter. Still, Antetokounmpo scored efficiently (getting to the free throw line often) on those possessions that Horford was his primary defender. In Morris, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, Brad Stevens has options when he plays small (with Horford at center), and the Celtics will switch screens liberally.

3. Will we see some small ball from the Bucks? After taking over for Kidd and getting Jabari Parker back, Joe Prunty did experiment with some lineups that had Antetokounmpo at center, but the Bucks were outscored by 31 points in those 72 minutes, with bad numbers on both offense and defense. John Henson and Tyler Zeller aren't going to scare the Celtics, but the Bucks have been better with a traditional center on the floor.

The number to know

13.3 -- Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 13.3 points per game in the restricted area, most in the last 15 years (since Shaquille O'Neal averaged 14.6 in 2002-03). Priority number one in defending the Bucks is forcing Antetokounmpo to shoot from the outside. He had an effective field goal percentage of just 37.3 percent from outside the paint, the third worst mark among 206 players who attempted at least 200 shots from the outside. The Celtics' defense was better at defending the perimeter than defending the basket. In fact, Antetokounmpo averaged 17.5 points in the restricted area in four games against the Celtics, registering 26 restricted-area points (his third highest output of the season) in their Dec. 4 meeting in Boston (a Celtics win). -- John Schuhmann

Making the pick

This series promises to be relatively ugly, with close games. It will be strength vs. strength on the Bucks' end of the floor, with transition defense obviously being a huge key for the Celtics. Transition defense begins with offensive execution, so Boston will need to take care of the ball and seek the layups that the Milwaukee defense will yield. They should be able to do that just enough to move on to the conference semifinals. Celtics in 7.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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