As the NBA season gets underway, avid basketball fans are already looking ahead to the playoffs next spring. While another Golden State championship appears to be the most likely outcome, the path to the finals is full of new twists and turns this year, particularly in the East. The Eastern Conference got weaker this past offseason; no matter how you slice it, LeBron James’ move West was a dramatic power shift. For the first time in nearly a decade, the road to the Finals in the East no longer runs through a LeBron-led Cleveland or Miami squad. The door is wide open for new challengers, including a Bucks team that is both improved and hungry after last year’s playoff hopes ended in the first round. They came out on the losing end of a 7-game dogfight against the Boston Celtics, who went on to eliminate Philadelphia in 5 games before eventually losing to LeBron’s Cavaliers in the Conference Finals.
In the early stages of the 2018-19 season, the Bucks project as a 3 or 4 seed in the East, most likely behind Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto. If the Bucks and Celtics are to meet again in the playoffs next spring, the matchup will likely take place in the conference semi-finals, if not later. Expect both higher stakes and a revival of any bad blood left over from last year’s series. Today we’re diving in to look at how both teams would fare in a 2019 rematch based on offseason personnel changes and what we’ve seen so far in this young NBA season.
For Boston, the biggest personnel changes are not to the roster, but simply involve getting star players Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward healthy and integrated into the offense. This was a deep team last year whose depth is now bolstered by regaining a starting point guard and wing, both of whom can create shots for themselves and others. Their absence during last season’s playoffs accelerated the growth process for the Celtics’ talented young core. Rookie Jayson Tatum emerged as a dependable option and clutch scorer. In short, Boston was an excellent team last year that finished second in the East and made a deep playoff run, even in the absence of key players. With a healthy roster, they project to be even better this year, although some chemistry issues have shown in the early part of the season. Hayward is still finding his shot, and needs more time on the court with the starters after missing last season entirely. Presumably these issues will work themselves out during the regular season, and the Celtics still have great depth. The only major concern in that regard would be center Al Horford, the team’s oldest starter at 32, whose defense, passing skills and leadership on the court anchor this Celtics team. No bench player for Boston can do all the things Horford does. Still, count on coach Brad Stevens to get the most out of his players.
For a Bucks team that pushed the Celtics to 7 games last April, the roster overhaul this offseason was a bit more involved. The most notable loss was Jabari Parker, who signed with the Chicago Bulls, leaving questions about who might fill the apparent scoring void left in his absence. Enter new head coach Mike Budenholzer, NBA Coach of the Year in 2014-15, who immediately signed familiar system players Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova to provide shooting and help space the floor, creating more room for MVP-superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo to devastate opposing defenders with his one-of-a-kind skillset. Forward Khris Middleton returns this season in the role of number 2 scorer, along with all other key contributors from last year’s squad. Rookie Donte DiVincenzo has shown promise, with hustle and what looks like a solid 3-point shot. If he can regularly bring anywhere near the level of playmaking he demonstrated in last year’s NCAA championship game, he has the potential to be an impact player for coach Bud, able to spell starters while delivering a scoring spark off the bench. Perhaps most importantly, the Bucks’ coaching change brings a new defensive philosophy that abandons previous head coach Jason Kidd’s gamble-heavy schemes, which frequently led to easy opportunities for opposing offenses. Last season’s Bucks finished 9th overall in offensive rating but only 19th defensively. While this season’s team is playing at a faster pace and scoring more, becoming even an average group on defense would be a marked improvement over last year.
If we assume that both teams make it into the playoffs as expected, with rosters at or near full health, a potential matchup this season projects for even more fireworks than last year. Boston’s best self: a healthy Kyrie slashing the lane with ridiculous under-the-rim finishes, surrounded by versatile guards and wings, nearly all of whom can create for themselves, anchored by a sound defensive system and excellent coaching. They are a talented team that plays hard for a good coach, with few obvious weaknesses. On the other side is a Bucks team that will forge a new identity offensively and defensively this season. They will stay home on defense, and possess the height and length necessary to disrupt opposing teams. On offense, by moving toward a more open, 3-point shooting system, the court becomes a playground for the Greek Freak, who has yet to show us how high his ceiling goes.
Isolation basketball for league-dominating players like Giannis, James Harden, LeBron, etc. becomes a vitally powerful tool in playoff matchups. Just ask last season’s Houston Rockets, who used it to slow down the Golden State Warriors before Chris Paul’s hamstring injury in game 5 of the Western Conference Finals left them shorthanded. By creating room for Giannis to operate with shooters and playmakers around him, his volume scoring can come within the flow of the offense and allow the Bucks to dictate pace to opposing teams. Furthermore, the Greek Freak’s three-point attempts are way up this season at 4.3 per game, more than doubling last season’s average. If those shots start falling and opponents are forced to respect Giannis as a shooter, even a little, it becomes exceptionally difficult for a single defender to guard him. With space, pace and shooting surrounding a generationally-talented player, this Bucks offense under Mike Budenholzer is primed to explode.
Last season’s Bucks were a team no one in the East wanted to meet in the first round, and this season should be even better. Unlike last year, the Bucks should be able to earn home court for the playoffs’ opening series. However, a 2019 playoff clash with Boston would most likely take place in the conference finals or semi-finals, meaning home court could go either way. Boston is struggling to start this season; they are 2-2 and not playing well on either end of the court, and these early losses could come back to haunt them in the playoff seeding next spring. Meanwhile, Milwaukee hosts the Philadelphia 76ers in a possible playoff preview tomorrow night, which should provide a strong early indicator of where this unbeaten Bucks team stands in the Eastern Conference pecking order. Home court proved to be a critical factor in the series between the Bucks and Celtics last April, so both will understand the importance in pushing for every possible win throughout this season.
On paper this matchup seems to favor Boston, which should come into the 2019 playoffs as an improved version of last year’s second-best team in the East. However, once the playoffs started, that squad was tested to near its limit by a Bucks team that may not have played to its full potential under then-coach Jason Kidd. We don’t know these new Bucks quite so well yet, but their ability to score at a rapid tempo and reliance on one of the league’s preeminent talents will keep them competitive in every game. If coach Bud’s track record with the San Antonio Spurs and brilliant work with the Atlanta Hawks is any indication, he’ll find new ways to unleash the Greek Freak all season long. Once the playoffs begin, the game is all about taking things one possession at a time, when supremely gifted players can take over a game. For a Bucks team left ravenous for revenge by last season’s loss, that may be the difference-maker. When the playoffs are seeded months from now, home court may fall to either team, but we can expect both fireworks and a hard-fought battle either way. With improved offensive and defensive scheming, being able to put the ball in the hands of one of the planet’s greatest players is a pivotal advantage. In a rematch, these Bucks will be the more changed and improved team, and a close contest will become even closer. Between having the best player on the court in Giannis Antetokounmpo and the motivation from knowing how close they came last season, expect a fight from these Bucks like you’ve never seen. Bucks in 7!
By Samuel Mattox
*All statistical information current as of 10/23/2018. Statistics taken from basketball-reference.com.