Bucks vs. Celtics Game 1 Preview: 2 Picks Based on Boston’s Defense

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Bucks vs. Celtics Odds

Bucks Odds+4.5
Celtics Odds-4.5
Over/Under217.5
Time1 p.m. ET
TVABC
Odds via PointsBet. Get up-to-the-minute NBA odds here.

For a second straight postseason, a second-round series featuring the Milwaukee Bucks feels like a potential Finals matchup.

Last year was the Nets. This year, it’s the Boston Celtics.

Last year’s series was marred by injuries to James Harden and Kyrie Irving but lived up to the hype anyway, with Milwaukee winning Game 7 when Kevin Durant’s shoe was one size too big.

This year, Khris Middleton (knee) will miss the entire round, and Milwaukee would again be on the road for a potential Game 7 after tanking late to avoid the Nets. Boston didn’t duck the matchup and swept Brooklyn in the first round.

Giannis Antetokounmpo. Jayson Tatum. Jrue Holiday. Jaylen Brown.

The defending champs against the 17-time NBA champs.

This series has all the makings. Let’s dig in.

Milwaukee Faces Uphill Battle Without Middleton

Normally this is where we’d dig into the season-long metrics to get a profile of these Bucks, but most of those metrics aren’t particularly relevant. That’s because they mostly leave out Brook Lopez, who missed most of the season injured, and include Middleton.

Middleton’s loss is huge on both ends. The Bucks are perilously short on wing depth, and he’s really their only two-way wing. Milwaukee can use Grayson Allen’s shooting to juice the offense, but he’s a minus on defense. Pat Connaughton is a stout defender but only shoots 3s on offense. Wesley Matthews is reliable but ancient.

The Bucks went big against Chicago without Middleton, starting Bobby Portis alongside Antetokounmpo and Lopez, and the results were fantastic. Portis was a monster with 15.3 points and 14.3 rebounds per game in 30 minutes per game and hit seven 3s in his three starts. He’s +650 at FanDuel to lead this series in rebounding.

Milwaukee had an absurd 94.4 first-round Defensive Rating, almost 10 points per 100 better than any other team. The big lineup dominated the glass, ending 82% of opponent possessions after one shot. Last year, Milwaukee’s defense was the NBA’s best in the postseason, but it wasn’t as stout this season. Were the Bucks saving it for the playoffs, or was Chicago just bad? Probably a little of both.

Milwaukee ranked only 14th in Defensive Rating in the regular season, but the Bucks were third on offense. The defense will have to carry the load here, though, without Middleton.

As great as Antetokounmpo is, it’s Middleton who can best create a bucket late in games. Jrue Holiday is the third star, but his offense was unreliable on last year’s title run and wasn’t good against Chicago with a 94 Offensive Rating on 48% True Shooting.

Allen started all 13 regular-season games that Middleton missed and averaged 17.2 points with 4.0 3s per game. His numbers with Middleton dropped to 9.6 and 2.0. Despite coming off the bench against the Bulls, Allen averaged 20.7 points in the three games without Middleton, hitting an absurd 70% of his 3s while making 4.7 per game.

Keep playing those Allen overs until proven otherwise, especially if the supersized lineup struggles and he plays more.

Still, it’s worrisome how much the Bucks offense relies on Allen hitting 3s. Antetokounmpo is the best player in the series, but he can only do so much and will be asked to carry a hefty load on defense. The Bucks need Allen, Portis, Connaughton and others to hit shots to have any chance.

Milwaukee has a +12.5 Net Rating with its big three on the court per Pivot Analysis, but that’s irrelevant with Middleton out. The Bucks were almost as good with just Giannis and Holiday, but that still leaves something like eight Antetokounmpo minutes without Jrue and — most worrying — 8-to-10 Holiday minutes without Giannis. Those minutes will be key

We know Milwaukee’s profile. The Bucks defense gives up the most 3-pointers in the league by design. If Boston’s shooters hit, Milwaukee is in trouble. The Bucks also rank top-five in 3s taken and made.

Shot variance will tell a lot of the story. The Bucks should win the rebounding battle and at the line, so a tight whistle could help against this physical D.

Antetokounmpo has to be more than just the best player in the series. He has to be the best player by a wide margin. He has to be Super Giannis, the Finals MVP, at both ends. We know he can be, but the task is huge against an opponent this good.

Red-Hot Celtics Rightfully Favored Against Champs

Boston is 30-6 since Jan. 29, and three of those six losses were by a single bucket.

Those Nets games were closer than a sweep would indicate, but Boston’s physical defense gave Kevin Durant a miserable series, and Jayson Tatum was the best player in the series at 29.5 points and 7.3 assists, in addition to great defense. If he’s even close to the best player in this series, it’s a wrap.

Boston was No. 1 in both Offensive and Defensive Rating from Jan. 29 to the end of the season. The defense was further ahead of No. 2 than No. 2 was from league-average, and Boston had a +14.8 Net Rating. The Celtics gain more than a full point on their opponent every seven possessions — and they’ve done that over a three-month period, and counting.

Boston’s offense led the league in True Shooting and Effective Field Goal Percentage during that stretch. But before Jan. 29, the Celtics ranked 23rd in those stats and 22nd in Offensive Rating.

How much of Boston’s offense was easy buckets off defensive stops? Some, certainly, but this surge has also come with the addition of Derrick White as a complementary creator and, more importantly, another big step forward from Tatum and Brown.

The other big change came defensively, with Robert Williams moved out of the paint and Al Horford defending opposing centers instead. Horford is far better switching and defending on the perimeter. That frees Williams to wreak havoc as a help defender.

Williams missed the final stretch of the season, and Boston’s defense slipped to seventh in EFG and Defensive Rating without him. He’s back but was not great in 30 first-round minutes. Without Williams, the Celtics have a very good defense. With him, they’ve been historically elite.

Boston’s defense ranked first in the NBA in both 2- and 3-point percentage allowed. Opponents simply aren’t getting quality shots up. That could be a huge problem for a Milwaukee team that lacks creativity at times, especially with Middleton sidelined.

Boston will need to prove the late-season offensive leap was not a fluke of hot shooting and unsustainably great defense. Will Marcus Smart hit open jumpers all series? Can Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard continue to shoot more than 40% off the bench? Will Horford be willing to shoot?

If they fall, the Bucks will be hard-pressed to keep up.

Bucks-Celtics Pick

These teams played four times this season, but two games saw stars missing and the others came in December. The Bucks won on Christmas with a huge Antetokounmpo game and lost 12 days earlier when he wasn’t as good and Tatum scored 42. Both games were played without Lopez and before this Celtics surge, so we cannot glean much.

Antetokounmpo has to be the best player in this series, well ahead of Tatum. Holiday may need to outplay Brown too. If Portis or Lopez step up as the fifth-best player in the series, Milwaukee can tilt the matchups in its favor. Boston’s bench and depth is a big advantage, especially in those minutes without Giannis.

Like it or not, much of this series will come down to shot variance by the role players. If Allen, Connaughton and Portis hit shots, the Bucks offense can hang. If Smart and the Celtics shoot well, Milwaukee is in big trouble.

The most trustworthy unit on the court is Boston’s defense, and the least is Milwaukee’s offense without Middleton. It’s tough to know whether Boston’s offense and Milwaukee’s defense can stay as hot as they’ve been, but the biggest question in the series is whether the Bucks can score enough.

Both offenses will have a stark adjustment facing such stout defenses after a pretty easy first round. It could be a shock to both teams early, so I’m expecting slow scoring to start. Bettors are expecting that too, betting the total down from 219 to 217 as of Saturday afternoon.

The number that hasn’t moved as much is the Bucks’ team total at 106.5, and that’s the angle I’m playing. Milwaukee’s Middleton-less offense against this awesome defense is the biggest mismatch in the series and could take some time for the Bucks to figure out. Even better, Bucks team totals are 9-1 to the under in Game 1s under Mike Budenholzer, per Gimme the Dog.

I lean Boston in Game 1 and in the series, but five points is a hefty cover ask in a game that could be low scoring. I don’t mind a bet on the Celtics to win Game 1 and take the series at -115. That’s an implied 53.5% and much better value than the -200 series price for Boston, especially since you’d feel much worse about them winning the series with a home Game 1 loss.

If you agree the Celtics are a step ahead of Milwaukee, there’s some value on Boston futures, both to win the East and title odds.

For the series, I won’t mess with an exact game prediction. Giannis is good enough to win any game on his own, and Boston is good enough to sweep another tough opponent if everything clicks.

But it’s clear that the Celtics are the better team, especially without Middleton. I’ll take Boston at -1.5 on the series line at +130 at BetMGM. I just don’t see enough Bucks offense to get to three wins, let alone four.

For Game 1, I may nibble some Allen and Grant Williams 3-point prop overs once they post, but my main play is the Bucks team under 106.5. Milwaukee’s offense will have to prove it has answers before I adjust.

Pick: Bucks team total under 106.5 | Celtics -1.5 series line

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