BOSTON (CBS) -- The regular season started for the Celtics with the aspirations of making a trip to the NBA Finals and potentially making some noise against one of the Western Conference's powerhouses.
Those dreams took a hit five minutes into the season when Gordon Hayward was lost on a nasty fall, and continued to diminish as the injuries piled up along the way. Now they enter the postseason without their leading scorer in Kyrie Irving, and even though they ended up winning more regular season games this year than last, teams were reportedly salivating at the chance of taking on the wounded Celtics. That included the Milwaukee Bucks, who they'll play in the first-round of the playoffs.
The Celtics may be the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed, but they're in for an extremely difficult series to start the postseason. With Irving, the Celtics seemed destined to make a deep playoff run. Without him, it's hard to overlook any opponent, and that starts with the Bucks. Milwaukee was wildly inconsistent throughout the season, but are a dangerous team with Giannis Antetokounmpo raising his game to the MVP stratosphere. He has a talented supporting cast with Khris Middelton (an extremely underrated scorer) and Eric Bledsoe, not to mention Malcolm Brogdon off the bench. It's an offense that will give Boston's stellar defense fits.
The two teams split their four-game series against during the regular season, but three of those matchups came in the season's first two months. The Celtics still had Kyrie, and the Bucks were still led by Jason Kidd. Both teams look very, very different as they gear up for their best-of-seven series.
But throughout the year, resiliency has been the magic word for the Boston Celtics. After losing Hayward and an 0-2 start to the season, the Celtics rattled off 16 straight wins. They were the top team in the Eastern Conference for much of the season, and remained the best defensive team in the league throughout. It's the identity Brad Stevens wants for his team, and paired with their resilient drive every night, it's the reason they were able to rattle some of the most impressive (and improbable) comebacks throughout the year.
We're probably in for a handful of close games that come down to the wire over the next two weeks, which have been a trademark for the Celtics since Irving went down. Here's what we'll be watching for when postseason basketball tips off in Boston on Sunday afternoon:
Slowing Down Giannis
Boston's biggest task at hand is trying to contain one of the NBA's most prolific scores. The Celtics didn't do a very good job at that during the regular season, as Antetokounmpo averaged 33.5 points on 54 percent shooting, 10.8 rebounds and five assists over his four games against Boston. The seven-footer serves as Milwaukee's primary ball-handler so he's going to have the ball a lot over the next two weeks. And he's going to put the ball in the basket a lot over the next two weeks.
His evenings against the Celtics were gigantic during the regular season. In their first meeting The Greek Freak scored 37 points off 13-of-22 shooting. He dropped 40 in their third matchup, hitting 14 of his 24 shots. The fewest amount of points he put up on the Celtics was 28.
The Celtics know they can't stop him, but they can make him work for those points. He does most of his damage close to or at the basket, so Al Horford made it a point to force Antetokounmpo into taking contested jumpers. When he does put his head down and attacks the rim, Horford will need plenty of help from Mr. Australia Aron Baynes as a final line of defense. Baynes may end up on a few posters along the way, but that has never deterred him from making his opponent earn their baskets.
Antetokounmpo is going to score his points, but the major factor is how he scores those points. If he's dropping 40 on 60 percent shooting, the Celtics will probably lose. But if he's putting in "only" 28 points while shooting around 35-40 percent, then the Celtics will have a great chance to win, and not just a given game, but the series.
Who Scores For The Celtics?
The Bucks have a star player they can turn to whenever they need someone to score points. The Celtics do not. That could be the difference in the series, as stars usually lead to good things in the NBA.
But their lack of a true No. 1 scorer could also be what makes the Celtics dangerous; it could be someone different every night leading the way. Usually that doesn't lead to success once the playoffs roll around, but that's where Brad Stevens comes into play (more on him later).
With Horford likely focusing much of his attention on keeping Giannis in check, it may be too much to ask him to take over on the offensive end as well. That being said, he had some of his best games against the Milwaukee defense, averaging 19/7/5 while hitting 71 percent of his shots from the floor. He also shot 60 percent from three-point land, so don't rule out a big offensive series from Boston's glue guy. Even if he isn't the one scoring the most points, chances are Horford is doing to be a big part of what makes the Boston offense go.
But the Celtics will rely heavily on their trio of youngins to put the ball in the cup. Jaylen Brown made amazing strides in his second NBA season, continuing his growth on the defensive end while also displaying some more flash on the offensive end. Jayson Tatum was even more impressive as a rookie, especially one that was thrust into a major role once Hayward went down. And when Irving went down, Terry Rozier took his offensive game to a whole new level. All three will need to rise to new levels now that the playoffs have arrived. Brown and Tatum were both solid against the Bucks in the regular season, with Brown averaging 14.8 points over four games and Tatum adding 14.3 points per contest. In his three games against the Bucks, Rozier averaged 8.7 points and six rebounds off the bench.
Marcus Morris will also need to continue to give Boston production off the bench. Mook got better as the season went on, averaging 19 points off 48 percent shooting in his 11 games in March.
Without a true top dog, the Celtics need all the offensive options they can get.
Rozier gets a section of his own, and it's not just because of his awesome nickname. He'll be Boston's starting point guard for the series, and in addition to quarterbacking the offense, he'll be tasked with defending Bledsoe.
The Celtics only saw Bledsoe twice during the regular season, but he came up big in both. He averaged 18.0 points and made 14 of his 18 shots -- a robust 78 shooting percent. The Rozier-Bledsoe matchup is going to be one of the more intriguing of the upcoming series.
Rozier has shown that he can thrive in the spotlight once he took over for Irving, averaging 15.6 points in his 16 starts. How he performs on both ends of the floor against the Bucks will be a big factor for Boston.
Brad's Time To Shine
Where the Celtics hold their biggest advantage is on the bench. Stevens will match wits with interim coach Joe Prunty, who deserves credit for stabilizing the Bucks after Kidd was let go, guiding them to a 21-16 record after an inconsistent 23-22 start.
But this is when Stevens can really shine. He has time to prepare for one opponent and devise a game plan against their best player. His in-game and game-to-game adjustments will be key, from how he handles defensive assignments on Antetokounmpo to his substitutions off the bench.
The undermanned Celtics may not have the overall talent that Milwaukee touts, but they have a giant advantage on the bench. While superstars on the floor usually mean good things for teams in the playoffs, the Celtics can feel confident that their coach should be able to will them to a series victory, whether it's one of those after timeout plays on the whiteboard or critical adjustments along the way.
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