Which team do you believe is for real?
The Boston Celtics, with their defense, well-rounded roster, length, athleticism, All-NBA talent in Kyrie Irving, and the flashes of what could be (in the midst of a muddled season).
Or the Milwaukee Bucks, with their MVP-to-be talent in Giannis Antetokounmpo, their length, their shooting, their elite defense — is this team just a regular-season monster or can they carry it over to the postseason?
After this series, one of these teams will be seen as the real deal, and the other will have some soul searching — and roster tweaking — to do before next season. Here are three things to keep an eye on when these teams meet starting Sunday in Milwaukee.
1) Al Horford has to have a big series. On both ends. As Yahoo Sports’ Keith Smith said on this week’s PBT Podcast, Al Horford is not the best Celtic but he’s the most important. That has never been truer than this series.
Defensively, he has done as good a job as any player could be expected to do on the Greek Freak. Make no mistake, Antetokounmpo is going to get his, but like all the elite players the best a team can hope for is to make that player work for it and be a little less efficient. The Pacers couldn’t do it in the first round.
Horford has done that as well as anyone. When Horford has defended Antetokounmpo this season, the Celtics have outscored the Bucks.
Offensively, don’t expect Brad Stevens to stick with the two-big, Aron Baynes and Horford lineups like he did in the previous series. It’s just not a good matchup here. Offensively, the Celtics struggle to score when both are on the floor: Against the Pacers in the first round, the Celtics had an offensive rating of just 90.3 when Baynes and Horford played together and were actually a -5 in those minutes (and the Bucks defense is much better than the Pacers). Also, what the Bucks what to do defensively is keep Brook Lopez back in the paint to clog things up on drives, Baynes gives Lopez a guy that will not space the floor and allows him to stay back and play to the Bucks’ strengths.
Instead, expect a lot of Horford at center and shooters everywhere (Gordon Hayward will get a lot of run), so Lopez has to come out on the perimeter and driving lanes open up. Horford setting the screen and running a pick-and-pop with Irving or Jayson Tatum could be the staple of Boston’s attack, and Horford needs to hit those jumpers (and threes) to make it all work. The Bucks will likely counter with Antetokounmpo on Horford in the clutch, but that will mean Lopez on Jaylen Brown or Gordon Hayward, and they need to hit their threes and pull Lopez out of the paint.
If Horford has a huge series, the Celtics have a chance.
2) Can Boston slow Antetokounmpo without leaving shooters wide open? This is the problem every team faces against Milwaukee: Nobody can stop the Greek Freak one-one-one, but once help is sent a shooter — Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe — is left open. Those Bucks shooters are not just catch-and-shoot guys, they can put the ball on the floor, get inside and punish mismatches, or make plays in other ways.
Boston’s answer in part will be Horford. As detailed above, he is going to have a significant role and get critical minutes on Antetokounmpo. However, expect Semi Ojeleye to become Brad Steven’s other weapon to throw at Antetokounmpo, probably more and more as the series goes on. Because Ojeleye is up to the task.
If Boston can slow Antetokounmpo, just make him work and be less efficient rather than the guy who had 279 dunks this season, the Celtics take a huge step toward winning this series. However, every team this season tried that in some variation — including Detroit in the first round — and the Bucks ended up with the best record in the NBA and a first-round sweep. It will not be easy for the Celtics.
3) Which team finds offense against an elite defense? Milwaukee had the best defense in the NBA in the regular season, Boston was sixth best. Both teams allowed their opponent less than a point per possession in the first round.
These are two elite defensive teams and points are going to be hard to come by. The team that is best able to break through the defense and get steady Buckets will advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Boston’s offense is going to get threes, particularly from above the break — the Bucks defense is about sagging back and rim protection, they will surrender those looks. Knock them down (Boston shot 37.1 percent from there this season, above the league average) and it will pull out defenders, opening up driving lanes for Kyrie Irving to cause damage, and for Jayson Tatum to get to the rim as well. The other thing to watch when Boston has the ball: Milwaukee does not like to switch screens, they do less than just about every team in the league, but that too could open up opportunities for Irving and Tatum to attack, but they have to finish. Do those things and it takes the Bucks out of their comfort zone, and we’ll see how Mike Budenholzer and his charges adapt.
Expect the Bucks to defensively go at Irving, the weakest link in the Celtics’ chain. Milwaukee will run picks, force switches, and try to make Irving work on both ends. If the Bucks can find offense attacking Irving, as well as the usual points from Antetokounmpo, they should be able to get enough Buckets to win. But again, it will not be easy.
PREDICTION: Celtics in six. But I do not feel confident about that pick at all, it would not surprise me to see the Bucks win in seven. In the end it comes down to which team we think is real, and for all their stumbles and in fighting this season, I trust the Celtics, Brad Stevens, Kyrie Irving, and Al Horford to get it done. Then again, we have expected that all season and been let down, so we will see.