In their final 15 games of the season, after losing Kyrie Irving, the Celtics went 9–6. That was one game better than the Bucks (8–7) during the same timeframe. Now the Bucks need to be one game better than them. Here are a few ways to make that so.
Force turnovers. With Kyrie, the Celtics ranked right in the middle of the league in turnover rate. After Kyrie went down, the Celtics coughed the ball up a whole bunch, tying the Lakers for the second-highest turnover rate in the NBA, better only than the comedic Suns. (Old pal Greg Monroe led the Celtics in turnovers during that Kyrie-less run.)
Meanwhile, the Bucks finished second in the league in points off turnovers this season. You think of a Brad Stevens team as a disciplined one, and maybe they make things clean in the playoffs, but there is an opening here for easy points (against an otherwise top-flight defense), for Giannis to run free.
Defend the three. Here is a most weird thing: The Bucks went 11–1 when attempting fewer than 20 three-pointers, and 0–8 when attempting more than 30 three-pointers. This is counterintuitive and flies in the face of Warriors-era wisdom that you need to let it fly to keep up. This, though, is not a regressive call to abstain from threes.
On the contrary, few things would please me more than to see Tony Snell sedate as ever after hitting his sixth three-pointer of Game 6, the series-clinching buzzer-beater. But the Celtics had the best three-point defense in the NBA this season, and like most things with their defense, that was probably not just luck. Hopefully the Bucks get hot from deep, and hopefully Khris Middleton hunts threes in lieu of long twos, but the more important thing might be defending the league’s second most accurate three-point shooting team. Jayson Tatum (.434), Al Horford (.429), Jaylen Brown (.395), and Terry Rozier (.381) will hurt the Bucks if they don’t have their defensive scheme figured out this time. Just like Norman Powell and company did last year in round one.
Have the second-best (or at the very least, third-best) player in the series. Giannis is the best player in the series. Horford is a brilliant defender, a refined inside-outside offensive player (see the aforementioned .429 three-point percentage), and one of the best-passing bigs in the league. If he is the second-best player in the series, that is no great shame. But he is also the actual third-best player on the Celtics, it just happens that their top two guys (Kyrie and Gordon Hayward) are out.
In their first round series loss to Toronto last season, the Bucks had just two rotation players with a PER of 15.0 (which is league average) or higher: Giannis, and Monroe, who is now on the other team. Especially against the depleted Celtics, this is a prime opportunity for Middleton or Eric Bledsoe — both of whom are firmly in their prime — to step up. Throw Jabari in there if you like, and get him to the free-throw line while you are it. All I know is that Tatum (a rookie) and Brown (who struggled last year in his first postseason) are going to have their playoff moments sooner or later. The Bucks need Middleton and Bledsoe and Jabari to have theirs sooner rather than later.