If the Milwaukee Bucks are going to pull off an upset, it will be because Giannis Antetokounmpo carries them past the Boston Celtics. (AP/Alex Brandon)
The first round of the NBA playoffs continues today with four more Game 1s. Following along here for the latest analysis and commentary from The Post’s NBA reporter Tim Bontemps, and ask him questions in the comments section.
- Predicting the East and West first-round series; expect the Rockets to sweep
The last time we saw the Milwaukee Bucks, they were getting absolutely obliterated in their season finale – a 130-95 drubbing at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers.
So why, then, did I pick them to beat the Boston Celtics in their upcoming playoff series? One reason: Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Yes, the Bucks have a lot of problems. They fired their coach, Jason Kidd, midway through the season. Jabari Parker has (understandably) looked rusty coming back from his second torn ACL in three years. Their defense leaves much to be desired.
But having a top-five player in the world can erase a lot of problems. That’s particularly true in the playoffs, where with days off between games and a long summer ahead, players like Antetokounmpo can play 40-plus minutes. Given Milwaukee is 9.1 points per 100 possessions worse with Antetokounmpo on the bench (including over 6 points per 100 worse defensively), per NBA.com, and that extra time on the court could make all of the difference.
A healthy Celtics team, though, would still be more than enough to beat this Bucks squad. But the Celtics are far from healthy. They’ve been without Gordon Hayward all season, but losing Kyrie Irving and Daniel Theis for the playoffs (and Marcus Smart presumably for the entire first round) leaves Boston down four rotation players, including two all-stars.
Brad Stevens may be a magician, but magicians needs tools to pull off their tricks. Will rookie Jayson Tatum, sophomore Jaylen Brown and third-year guard Terry Rozier be good enough to help Boston advance? Potentially. And Al Horford’s presence will help ensure Boston’s defense is good enough to give the Celtics a chance if their shooters can knock down threes.
Talent tends to win in the playoffs, though. And not only do the Bucks have Antetokounmpo, but they arguably have three of the four best players in the series (depending on where one ranks Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton in comparison with Tatum and Brown). How those four players perform could actually wind up being the bellwether for how this series goes.
But if I have to hang my hat on something in making a prediction, I’ll live with riding with one of the NBA’s best players against an injury-riddled opponent.
Antetokounmpo hasn’t had a huge moment in the playoffs yet. He’s good enough to make beating the Celtics his first.
Some quick-hits on today’s other games:
– The Cleveland Cavaliers have spent all season playing zero defense, leaving observers curious as to whether they plan on playing some in the playoffs. Judging by how Coach Tyronn Lue is aligning his players before they begin, though, it seems like the Cavaliers are betting on their offense to carry them instead.
To that end, entering the playoffs with a starting lineup of Jeff Green at power forward and Kevin Love at center – eschewing better defensive options inside in Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. – makes sense. That could wind up being particularly true against an Indiana Pacers team that doesn’t have the kind of bruising low-post presence that Cleveland’s next two likely opponents – the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers – will have.
But how Cleveland’s defense holds up – and if its offense is good enough to carry it whether the “D” shows up or not – will be the main thing to watch for as the Cavaliers try to make a fourth straight NBA Finals.
– There might not be an individual matchup I’m looking forward to more in these playoffs than Paul George vs. Donovan Mitchell.
George has been one of the league’s best perimeter defenders for some time, and the Oklahoma City Thunder can unleash him on Mitchell – the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz as a rookie – and allow him to make Mitchell’s life miserable every second he’s on the court.
It’s been an impressive rookie season for Mitchell, but it feels like it’s too much to ask to find a way to have success against a veteran like George – not to mention a veteran who, time and again, has stepped up his game to another level in the playoffs.
This is just one of many reasons why Jazz-Thunder is a series I’m fired up to watch every second of – and one I hope goes as long as possible.
– The Minnesota Timberwolves have a fundamental problem in their quest to make their series against the Houston Rockets interesting: they need to change the math.
Houston is one of the league’s most prolific three-point shooting teams; Minnesota is one of its worst. It is that difference, as much as anything, that is going to make Minnesota’s life difficult against the Rockets. To win, Minnesota will have to prevent Houston from scoring at will from beyond the arc, and will have to try to increase their own output at the other end.
This season, that equation hasn’t worked out too well, as the Rockets have won all four meetings – three by 18 points, the other by nine. To make matters worse, Houston has scored at least 116 points in all four meetings, and 120 or more in three of them.
There is a reason, after all, that this was the only series I picked to end in four games. Until further notice, three will continue to be more than two.
Predicting the East
Raptors in 7: I want to pick Washington to win this series. The Wizards match up well with Toronto and have shown no fear for them this season (splitting four games without John Wall playing in any of them). But it’s just impossible to put that much faith in this Wizards team after the way they’ve played this season. So while Toronto will once again have a hard time, they will find a way to advance.
Bucks in 6: Upset! I feel equally unsure about this series, as I can’t trust Milwaukee and Boston has a million injuries. But the Bucks do have Giannis Antetokounmpo — and I’m picking The Greek Freak to have his first playoff moment and lead the Bucks to the second round.
Sixers in 7: Another tough series to call. Philadelphia has a lot more talent than Miami — but a lot less experience. Teams generally have to take gradual steps in the playoffs — and rarely make it to the conference finals on their first try, as the Sixers are predicted to do. But with Joel Embiid likely to come back early in the series, we’ll tip the odds, ever so slightly, in Philadelphia’s direction.
Cavs in 5: LeBron James has made it to the NBA Finals for seven straight seasons. He isn’t losing in the first round. It’s been a tremendous season for the Indiana Pacers and former DeMatha star Victor Oladipo, but it ends here.
Rockets in 4: Minnesota simply can’t guard Houston. This should be a high scoring — but short — series.
Warriors in 5: With Stephen Curry hurt, Golden State limping into the playoffs and San Antonio’s pedigree, the Spurs will get a game. But if this series is any more competitive than that, the questions about Golden State’s ability to repeat as champions will gain far more credibility in my eyes.
Pelicans in 6: This should be a really fun series, and Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has a penchant for coming up big in big moments. But Anthony Davis has taken a step forward this season and established himself as a top five player in the NBA, and he has yet to win a playoff game. This is his time to make a statement, and I think he will by getting the Pelicans to the second round.
Thunder in 7: This is, without question, the best and most compelling series of the first round. But the Thunder have a couple things going for them. The first is home court — which, in a close series, is a huge edge. The second is that Paul George, one of the NBA’s best players and wing defenders, is going to be guarding Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell. It’s been an incredible debut from the Louisville product, but asking him to be the leading scorer on a playoff team against an all-world defender like George feels like too much for Utah to overcome. But this is easily the series I’m most looking forward to watching.
- Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics, 1 p.m. (TNT)
- Indiana Pacers at Cleveland Cavaliers, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
- Utah Jazz at Oklahoma City Thunder, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
- Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets, 9 p.m. (TNT)
The Warriors and Cavaliers have met in three straight NBA Finals, but The Post’s Neil Greenberg writes that neither team should be considered a favorite entering the playoffs. That shouldn’t be too surprisingly, considering the Houston Rockets went wire-to-wire this season as the league’s best team; they have a 39 percent chance of winning the title, which would be their first since going back-to-back in the 1994 and ’95 Finals. But what might surprise you is which teams Greenberg has following the Rockets with the best odds to win it all. (Hint: It’s not Golden State or Cleveland.) In fact, Greenberg also writes that the Warriors should be on upset alert in the first round, having to host the always dangerous Spurs.
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Hop into the comments section below starting at 12:30 p.m. to chat with The Post’s Tim Bontemps about all of your NBA questions.