Though they swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round, the Boston Celtics are still one of the strongest and deepest teams left in the playoffs.
The Celtics hadn’t swept an opponent in any round of the playoffs since 2011, when they defeated the New York Knicks in the first round.
With the Celtics sweeping the Pacers, they have shown that their roster is built to succeed in the playoffs despite their inconsistencies this season.
As the Celtics prepare to play the Milwaukee Bucks in the semifinals, they will have a good chance at challenging the NBA’s top regular season team. Game 1 is scheduled for Sunday at 1 p.m. EST in Fiserv Forum.
Led by Kyrie Irving, one of the top playoff performers in the league, the Celtics most importantly have playoff experience. They have retained their core, but the big difference is that Irving and Hayward are playing this time around; last postseason, both players were out with injuries.
For the Celtics, being battle tested is going to be significant. The Bucks lost to the Celtics in seven games during the first round last season, but the Celtics were one win away from reaching the Finals.
Though an MVP candidate, Giannis Antetokounmpo had never made it past the first round of the playoffs until the Bucks swept the Detroit Pistons this year; the Bucks hadn’t played past the first round since 2001, when they lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Philadelphia 76ers.
While experience will matter, the Celtics will also need to be at full strength. This postseason, they’ve been without Marcus Smart, who has been battling an oblique injury he suffered near the end of the regular season.
Per Sporting News, coach Brad Stevens said he knows Smart is making good progress, but he is not close to returning.
If Smart can’t play for part of the series against the Bucks, that will be a factor. He’s arguably the Celtics’ best perimeter defender, and his talents would be needed to help contain Antetokounmpo and Bucks guards such as Eric Bledsoe.
The Celtics played good defense against the Pacers, as they held them to 40.2% shooting from the field during the series. Still, the Pacers were also not comparable on offense to the Bucks, especially considering they were without Victor Oladipo; Oladipo suffered a ruptured quad tendon in his right knee during January.
Oladipo was the Pacers’ leading scorer, and without him, they lacked most of their offensive output.
The Bucks are still without Malcolm Brogdon, who is rehabbing a foot injury he suffered during the middle of March. Per Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Brogdon is working to play in the second round.
Bud says we should get a better idea in the next 3-5 of when Malcolm Brogdon will be back. Said Brogdon hasn’t yet gone live or done any scrimmaging, but he is progressing as he should. Target time still sometime in Round 2.
— Matt Velazquez (@Matt_Velazquez) April 22, 2019
Other than Brogdon, though, the Bucks have their full roster. Antetokounmpo is undoubtedly going to be tough for the Celtics to guard. Despite the difficulty in defending Antetokounmpo, the Celtics have a decent number of defenders to throw at him.
Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and Marcus Morris will all need to help contain Antetokounmpo and keep him from scoring too many easy buckets inside.
Aside from that, the Bucks also have players such as Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova who benefit from Antetokounmpo’s success in the paint.
When Antetokounmpo drives to the rim, that creates space for the team to hit threes. Middleton, Lopez, and Ilyasova are some of the team’s top shooters, as they all shot at least 36% from the three-point line in the regular season.
The Celtics will need to be at their best on defense to win this series. They are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, as they held teams to an average of 108.0 points per game during the regular season.
But defending Antetokounmpo is a task even good defensive teams like the Celtics struggle with. The Celtics lost the season series 2-1 against the Bucks, and Antetokounmpo averaged 31.0 points per game on 59.3 percent shooting against them.
While the Celtics will need to play near perfect on defense, Irving and Jayson Tatum must lead the team on offense.
Irving and Tatum played well against Indiana, and they were the Celtics’ top two scorers in the series. Irving must also continue to be a facilitator for the Celtics.
He averaged 7.8 assists in the series, and four other players besides Irving and Tatum averaged double figures in scoring against the Pacers.
For the Celtics, it’s going to be a tough task to defeat the Bucks in the semifinals. Most of the Celtics’ problems will come from the defensive end.
The Celtics shouldn’t struggle to match the Bucks on offense, though.
Irving’s offensive arsenal is deep, and he is built for the intensity of the playoffs. And though he’s a second-year player, Tatum has shown that he has the potential to be the same way.
If the Celtics can use their defensive abilities to contain Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, they should be positioned to do their thing on offense.
The playoffs are about execution and making the right plays at the right time. And because of the Celtics’ experience, having good execution should be one of their best strengths in this series.