The Milwaukee Bucks held most of the cards going into the last day of the regular season.
They were in the East's No. 2 slot, one game ahead of the Boston Celtics, but knew Boston held the tiebreaker. The Bucks saw the Brooklyn Nets lurking as a potentially dangerous No. 7 seed.
The Bucks effectively conceded their final game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, sitting all their key regulars save for Jrue Holiday -- who played eight seconds before committing an intentional foul so he could log his 67th game, and trigger a $306,000 bonus. By doing so, Milwaukee foisted an unpleasant choice onto the Celtics: If Boston beat Memphis in its finale, it would leapfrog Milwaukee into the No. 2 spot -- risking that matchup against Brooklyn. Lose to the Grizzlies (who had nothing to play for, and rested all five starters), and the Celtics -- assuming a Philadelphia 76ers win over the Detroit Pistons -- would fall to No. 4. That meant a series against the Toronto Raptors, amid rumblings at least one key Boston player was not fully vaccinated -- and thus ineligible to play in Toronto.
Boston won, and got that No. 2 seed -- and a date with the Nets. The Bucks avoided Brooklyn, but their gambit cost them home-court advantage in this mega-series. For the second consecutive postseason, it's possible Milwaukee is playing the "real" NBA Finals in the second round -- only this time without Khris Middleton for at least the first part of the series as he recovers from a leg injury. (I'm less convinced of the "real NBA Finals" framing this time around, given how great the Phoenix Suns have been when healthy and the Golden State Warriors now rampaging at full throttle.)
Boston has been by far the league's best team since Jan. 1. It is 38-12 in that span, and has outscored opponents by about 12.5 points per 100 possessions. Anything over double digits suggests historic dominance. The No. 2 team in that stretch -- Phoenix -- was plus-8 per 100 possessions. For the season, the Bucks are plus-3.2.
Jayson Tatum was the best player (by a lot) in a series featuring Kevin Durant. If he's the best player in this series, Milwaukee is in trouble. With Middleton out, the Bucks need Giannis Antetokounmpo at his peak to beat Boston four times in seven tries -- with a potential Game 7 on the road. They need him to be the best player by a comfortable margin. Antetokounmpo is obviously capable, even against a Boston team that has more options defending him than any other opponent. He is the league's most destructive two-way player -- a two-time MVP and reigning Finals MVP who appears to have overcome his free throw issues and can toggle between all three front-court positions.
If there is a player who can solve Boston's impenetrable, ultra-switchy defense, it is Antetokounmpo.
That defense has gotten most of the attention during Boston's rise, but the Celtics also have the league's No. 2 offense over those 50 games. It is well built to prod Milwaukee's stout defense. The Bucks prioritize limiting shots at the rim and free throws; the Celtics don't depend much on either. They were 22nd in both free throw rate and percentage of attempts in the restricted area, per Cleaning The Glass.
Boston takes a good amount of long 2s and lots of 3s -- a prerequisite for having any chance against Milwaukee. Only the Miami Heat allowed more 3-point attempts than Milwaukee. The Bucks live with a certain number of semi-contested (and sometimes uncontested) above-the-break 3s. It is the cost they pay to barricade the paint. To upend them -- to turn math against them -- you have to make a solid number of those 3s. You won't outduel the Bucks at the rim, and you almost certainly won't make enough long 2s to warp the math in your favor. (This is why the 3-phobic Chicago Bulls were drawing dead against Milwaukee in the first round.)
Boston is not a great long-range shooting team. It starts one total non-shooter (Robert Williams III, assuming he returns to the starting lineup) and two so-so shooters -- Marcus Smart and Al Horford, both around 33% from deep -- around Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Derrick White has struggled on 3s. Grant Williams has been a revelation from deep this season, but the Bucks are likely eager to see how real that is. (It looks real from here.)
Expect the Bucks to dare Horford, Smart, White, and even Grant Williams to launch -- to sometimes leave them open, close out only halfway, maybe get in their heads if they miss a couple in a row. On the flip side, if those guys hit enough open 3s, the Celtics should be in good shape -- and the Bucks might have to adjust.
The Celtics have preferred to play big, with two of Williams, Williams III, and Horford on the floor at almost all times. They have rarely had to downsize, shifting Brown or Tatum to power forward as a means of boosting their shooting. Playing big has fortified Boston's defense and rebounding. It will be interesting to see if Milwaukee can nudge them into smaller lineups at all, and if it would even matter. (It seemed for a bit after the White trade that Boston's closing five would be Smart, White, Brown, Tatum, and Williams III, but we have not seen much of that group. Horford and Williams have been too good.)