Three things to watch in Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics
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Boston vs. Milwaukee has been the most anticipated second-round series in the NBA — the defending champions against the hottest team over the season’s final months. Two elite defenses trying to slow down some of the game’s best offensive players. A showdown that could determine who came out of the East — and maybe the next NBA champion.

Then the Bucks’ injury report came out.

This 2/3 series in the East still has fascinating storylines, a chess match of Xs and Os that will be a master class, but the Bucks being without their second-best player takes some of the luster off the showdown. Still, there are things to watch that will swing the series.

1) Does Khris Middleton play in this series?

This entire series may swing on the Bucks’ injury report.

Milwaukee still has (arguably) the best player on the planet in Giannis Antetokounmpo, an elite point guard in Jrue Holiday, a roster filled with shooting and high IQ role players, and they bring championship swagger to the party.

All that likely is not enough without Khris Middleton, who is out with an MCL sprain in his left knee. The Bucks said Middleton would be re-evaluated two weeks after the injury (which happened on April 20). Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer refuses to put a timeline on Middleton’s return.

However, a report from Shams Charania of The Athletic called it a Grade 2 sprain that will cause Middleton to miss the entire series. If so, the Bucks are in trouble.

A lot of fans underrate Middleton. He’s an All-Star, an NBA champion, and an Olympic gold medalist, and he’s the best half-court pick-and-roll ball handler and creator the Bucks have. In late-game halfcourt sets, it’s Middleton the Bucks lean on, not the Greek Freak. On top of that, he’s a solid and large wing defender, a matchup needed against the Celtics with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.

Middleton also has had some monster outings against Boston, giving him a “Celtics killer” reputation (and leaving the Celtics’ fan base a little scarred). Him going off and winning a game could have swung this series.

The Bucks are still good without Middleton, but likely not good enough to beat these Celtics. If he returns, the odds even out, but that comeback may be a longshot.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. the Celtics’ defense

The Greek Freak is an offensive force unlike anyone the NBA has ever seen, a combination of nimble athleticism and bulldozer strength that, once he gets rolling downhill, is nearly impossible to stop. He averaged 29.9 points per game this season on 55.3% shooting.

On the other side, the Celtics just held Kevin Durant — one of the greatest scorers the game has ever seen — in check for a series.

Can they do the same to Antetokounmpo?

Boston may be better suited to deal with Antetokounmpo than any other team in the NBA. It starts with Al Horford, who has both the size and the quick feet to hang with the two-time MVP — as much as anyone can. Horford will have Robert Williams sliding over to help when Antetokounmpo drives, a big plus. Milwaukee can throw other looks at Antetokounmpo as well, such as Smart doubling at the point of attack and not letting Giannis get a head of steam going downhill. They can throw Tatum or Brown on Antetokounmpo for a possession or two. Boston has the bodies to build a wall between Antetokounmpo and the basket and dare him to shoot jumpers.

Without Middleton, expect Antetokounmpo to put up monster lines in this series, he has to take on a lot within the offense and he knows it. The Celtics just have to make him less efficient as he puts up those numbers, and they have the defenders to do just that.

In the end, Antetokounmpo’s huge stat lines in this series may not be enough without Middleton as the counterpunch.

3) This is going to be a great guard battle

The Celtics start Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown as their backcourt. The Bucks bring Jrue Holiday with either Wesley Matthews or the red-hot Grayson Allen, depending on the matchup. Matthews seems the likely starter here, to match up with the wing size of the Celtics.

In a series where the forwards are MVP-level players — Antetokounmpo and Tatum — who will grab all the headlines, this is a fascinating under-the-radar matchup.

Holiday is a strong on-ball defender, which means he will likely guard Brown, and at points in the series Tatum. No matter who is on Smart and Brown (and Tatum, for that matter), the Celtics’ guards need to be aggressive getting downhill off the pick-and-roll and into the paint against the Bucks’ drop coverage with Brook Lopez. The Bucks’ base defense is all about taking away the paint and shots at the rim — drive into that and kick out and shooters will get good looks from 3. Then the Celtics will just need to knock those shots down.

Watch out for Holiday to get some steals as a help defender, as well. He has a gift for timing. For example, Tatum loves to spin at the nail (the middle of the free throw line) to create space — he could do that right into Holiday a few times this series.

Without Middleton, there will be more halfcourt shot creation responsibility falling on Holiday, and it will be tough to execute that against strong defenders in Smart and Brown. Holiday — an Olympian in his own right — will have to have a much better series than he did against the Bulls if the Bucks are going to make noise in this series.

PREDICTION: Celtics in five. If Middleton were playing in this series (or if he returns early), I would have likely called this a seven-game series and a coin toss. He means that much to the Bucks, but in a series with two evenly-matched teams, Milwaukee missing its second-best player is a massive blow.