The Milwaukee Bucks are favored to dispatch of the Boston Celtics in their NBA Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series.
And rightfully so.
The Bucks fashioned an amazing regular-season record with a league-high 60 victories and then ran roughshod over the Blake Griffin-injured Detroit Pistons in the first round of postseason competition.
But lest anyone forgets, the Bucks were favored to dispense of the Celtics in the opening round of the 2018 series and couldn’t seal the deal, losing in seven games to a team that didn’t have two of its three best players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
Well, guess what? Irving and Hayward are healthy now and their mere presence will make the Bucks’ chances of disposing of the Celtics even tougher now. Irving is a BIG-TIME player and unequivocally one of the game’s best closers.
Irving could be Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s worst nightmare in this series. Not only is Irving an elite player, the Bucks really don’t have anyone who can consistently match up with him.
Malcolm Brogdon, unquestionably the Bucks’ best backcourt defender, won’t be available for the first two games of the series as he is sidelined with what Bucks officials claim is a plantar fascia tear in his right foot.
It’s hard to imagine Brogdon, who was also enjoying an excellent season from an offensive standpoint (15.6 points per game while shooting a white-hot 42.6 percent from 3-point range and 92.8 percent from the free throw line), having much of an impact in this series even if he returns. He has been sidelined since March 3 and getting back in tip-top game condition will be tough.
That means keeping Irving in check will likely be the primary responsibility of Eric Bledsoe. While Bledsoe played well defensively during the regular season, the world saw how he was chewed up and spit out in last year’s playoffs against the Celtics by Terry Rozier.
Thrust into the starting lineup when Irving was injured. Rozier recorded three, 20-point plus games in last season’s series against the Bucks, including a stellar 26-point, 9-assist showing in the decisive Game 7.
And Rozier isn’t close the caliber of player of Irving
So, if Bledsoe can’t do the job on Irving, who will Budenholzer turn to for that difficult assignment? Sterling Brown? George Hill? Pat Connaughton? LOL.
Budenholzer may be forced to periodically use Giannis Antetokounmpo on Irving. And who’s to say the Greek Freak can’t somewhat neutralize Irving? But even then, Budenholzer and the Bucks aren’t out of the woods.
Irving, who averaged 22.5 points in an opening-round sweep of Indiana, is also an exceptional facilitator. He averaged 7.8 assists in the Indiana series and won’t hesitate giving up the ball if he sees another of his teammates has a distinct mismatch on the smaller Bledsoe or Brown or whomever.
If the Bucks are to win this series, and advance to the Conference Finals for the first time since 2001, Budenholzer and his staff will have to concoct a defensive game plan that prevents Irving from dominating. It’ll be, by far, Budenholzer’s most daunting challenge this season.