There will be no excuses.
If the Milwaukee Bucks stumble in their opening-round playoff series to the Boston Celtics, it’ll all be on them.
The Bucks will enter the first game of the Eastern Conference series on Sunday in Boston with a full complement of players. Their star, Giannis Antetokoumpo, and key players, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker and Eric Bledsoe, are all healthy.
Not so much with the Celtics.
Three of their top six players won’t even suit up and be available for the best-of-seven game series. All-Star forward Gordon Hayward, their prized offseason acquisition, played in just the regular-season opener before blowing out his ankle. He won’t return until next season.
Boston also won’t have the services of Kyrie Irving, unequivocally one of the best point guards in the Association after recently undergoing knee surgery, and Marcus Smart, arguably the team’s best defender who has been sidelined since March 11 after undergoing thumb surgery. He won’t return until later this month, provided the Celtics are still alive in the playoffs.
With the Celtics decimated by injuries, the Bucks couldn’t have asked for a much better first-round opponent. Here is a breakdown of the starting matchups, key reserves and head coaches:
Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe (17.8 points and 5.1 assists) vs. Boston’s Terry Rozier (11.3 points and 2.9 assists).
Assessment: Rozier was a player the Bucks liked in the 2015 draft, but saw him taken one spot ahead of them at 16 by the Celtics. The Bucks then took Rashad Vaughn, who is no longer in the .league. After two non-descript seasons, Rozier emerged as a solid player this season averaging 11.3 points in 25.9 minutes.
Bledsoe, acquired from Phoenix earlier in the season, is playing his best basketball as Buck right now, having scored at least 18 points in eight of his last 10 games. That included a 39-point explosion against the Clippers.
“Rozier really gets after you defensively and he’s good at getting others involved on offense,’’ an Eastern Conference advance scout said. “But he’s going to have his hands full with Bledsoe. I’ve Bledsoe dominate players like Rozier. I think Bledsoe could have a huge series.’’
Milwaukee’s Tony Snell (6.9 pts, 1.9 rebs) vs. Boston’s Jaylen Brown (14.5 pts, 4.9 rebs)
Assessment: Snell is arguably the Bucks’ defender – which isn’t saying a lot — but has suffered through a trying season. His numbers are down in virtually every category including points (8.5 last season to 6.9 this season) and rebounds (3.1 last season to 1.9 this season).
In contrast, Brown has taken his game to the next level and is starting to justify the Cs making him the third overall pick in the 2016 draft. Brown averaged a mere 6.6 points as a rookie but has elevated that to a team-high 14.5 this season.
“Brown and Snell are both really good defenders, but Brown has really become a more offensive-minded player,’’ an NBA official said. “In the game against Washington (on Tuesday), I think he had like 21 points at halftime (and finished with 27). He’s definitely looking to be more of factor on the offensive end.’’
Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton (20.1 pts, 5.2 rebs) vs. Boston’s Jayson Tatum (13.9 pts, 5 rebs)
Assessment: Which Khris Middleton is going to show up in the playoffs: the one who can be one of the elite all-around players at his position in the game or the one who tends to lose focus at times on both ends of the floor?
Middleton will be trying to break out of a postseason rut. In six playoff games in 2015, he shot 38 percent from the field. In last year’s playoffs, he shot 39 percent in six games. In his 12 playoff appearances, his 3-point percentage is a subpar 34 percent.
While Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell are the clear frontrunners for Rookie of the Year honors, Tatum has fashioned an impressive first season himself. He started 80 games and gained the trust of Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who played him 31 minutes a game.
Tatum is also at the top of his game right now, totaling 20 or more points in three of his last six outings. One of those was a 20-point showing against the Bucks almost two weeks ago, prompting a veteran Bucks player to remark after the game: “Man, he’s good. Really good. I can’t believe he’s a rookie.’’
Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (26.9 pts, 10 rebs, 4.5 assists) vs. Boston’s Al Horford (12.9 pts, 7.4 rebs. 4.7 assists)
Assessment: Remember when the Bucks were hoping and praying to land Horford in the 2007 draft? But the Bucks fell three spots in the Draft Lottery and, after Horford went to Atlanta with the third pick, they wound up choosing Yi Jianlian at six. Horford went on to become a five-time All-Star, his latest being this season, while Yi never came remotely close to being an All-Star and is now out the league.
Horford has an exquisite all-around game and is one of the few players who can effectively challenge the gifted Antetokounmpo. Furthermore, Antetokounmpo has been dealing with ankle and knee issues on and off this season and hasn’t been the same player recently, going just 12 for 35 from the field in the last two games.
Said an NBA scout: “The key to this matchup is this: Can Giannis hit his jump shots? You know the Celtics will play the percentages and let him shoot from the outside. But if the Bucks are going to win this series, Giannis has to hit those shots. He doesn’t necessarily have to go 30 (points) and 12 (rebounds) but he definitely needs to come up big.’’
Milwaukee’s John Henson (8.8 pts, 6.8 rebs) vs. Boston’s Aron Baynes (6 pts, 5.4 rebs).
Assessment: Henson is having perhaps his best season in Milwaukee, having started 69 games after having started just 83 games in the previous five seasons. The Bucks, with a bevy of potent scorers, won’t need Henson’s offense but they’ll desperately need him to be locked in on the defensive end.
Baynes is a journeyman, having played three seasons with San Antonio and two with Detroit before joining the Celtics this season. He starts but plays only an average of 18 minutes and seldom is on the floor down the stretch.
“Baynes does a really good job of being physical, being a rebounder, pushing people off the block,’’ an NBA scout said. “John tends to struggle against those physical guys, so John is going to have to get his baby hook going, get some tip-ins and score that way.’’
KEY BENCH PLAYERS
Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker (12.6 pts, 4.9 rebs) and Malcolm Brogdon (13 pts, 3.2 assists) vs. Boston’s Marcus Morris (13.6 pts, 5.4 rebs) and Greg Monroe (10.2 pts, 6.3 rebs).
Assessment: Parker appears primed for a coming out playoff party. He not only averaged 19.5 points but 8.1 boards in the last six regular-season games. Brogdon recently returned after sitting out 30 games with a left quadriceps injury and should provide the Bucks with important depth in the backcourt.
Morris possesses a nice, al-around game and could probably start for a lot of teams, while you know Monroe will be extra motivated to play well against his former team. Said Horford about Monroe: “He’s been waiting for this.’’
Milwaukee’s Joe Prunty (first season, 21-16 record) vs. Boston’s Brad Stevens (fifth season, 221-189 record)
Assessment: Prunty has done a creditable job under extenuating circumstances after the Bucks fired Jason Kidd in the middle of the season. His future with the team could be determined by how the Bucks fare in the playoffs.
As for Stevens, he has firmly established himself as one of the premier coaches in the league and he’s just 41 years old. Said a veteran NBA advanced scout: “Stevens is one of the best coaches I’ve ever scouted. He does an absolutely amazing job.’’
SERIES PREDICTION: Bucks in seven.
— Photo by Bill Tennessen