Playoff Mailbag: Celtics vs. Bucks, Round 1

Q: Who’s gonna start?
Who are the first three guys off the bench?
Who is the most important of all the players?
And how far are we gonna go?
— Brendan Flynn via email

A: Since the Celtics lost Kyrie Irving for the season, Brad Stevens has started seven different lineups in 15 games. The most common of those — and the most likely to begin the playoffs — is Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and Aron Baynes. In nine starts together, that group has outscored opponents by 39 points in the first and third quarters and posted a defensive rating that would rank as the league’s best if averaged over a full season.

That leaves Shane Larkin, Marcus Morris and Greg Monroe as their first ball-handler, swingman and big off the bench, respectively. Semi Ojeleye will earn some minutes, so long as he makes shots, but Stevens will shorten the rotation, if only to avoid playing Abdel Nader and Guerschon Yabusele. It’s not exactly an awe-inspiring group, at least not until Marcus Smart gets closer to a potential return late in the series, but Morris and Monroe are both capable of big nights against a Bucks team that’s shallow on defense, and Larkin won’t be overmatched against Milwaukee.

It’s hard to pinpoint any one guy as the most important, because as cliché as it sounds, the Celtics are going to need contributions from just about everyone in the rotation. That said, a lot hinges on Horford, who will have increased playmaking responsibilities in Irving’s absence and who will draw Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo a lot on defense. The C’s will need him to be the same player he was last postseason, when he was a triple-double threat for two rounds.

As crazy as it may be, the Celtics could battle through to the conference finals again. The schedule broke as best as it could. The Bucks are probably the most favorable of the three possible first-round scenarios, over the Heat and Wizards, and as good as the 76ers have been this season (the last month especially), they’re still an inexperienced bunch that could be had by a well-coached bunch of hard-hat players who might have a hungry Smart back for Round 2.

Q: Who guarded Giannis in our regular-season matchups the most, and how did they do?
@Speeens on Twitter

A: Horford guarded Antetokounmpo for 94 of 223 possible possessions, according to Second Spectrum data, and nobody else on the Celtics guarded him for more than 27. That’s roughly the equivalent of one 48-minute game, and the Greek Freak poured in 42 points on 24 shots (with six assists) opposite Horford — 8.4 points per 100 possessions better than his averages against the rest of the NBA. Not great. But Ojeleye and Tatum were worse in shorter stints.

Sometimes great offense just beats good defense:

Brown and Morris actually fared better against Giannis in small sample sizes, both holding him below his season averages on 42 combined possessions (14 points on 10 shots and two assists against five turnovers). It wouldn’t be surprising to see both get ample opportunities again:

But the reality is that few defenders one-on-one in the league can stop a 6-foot-11 dude who can play all five positions. The Celtics will beg him to shoot, and they’ll help as best they can:

But Giannis is going to get his, and there’s only so much you can throw at him. Stevens may opt to let him go ham and make sure nobody else around him beats you, too, a la Bill Belichick.

Q: I’m concerned Rozier and Larkin aren’t going to be enough at point guard to beat the Bucks. Rozier proved he’s an NBA starter this year, and Shane is a nice option on a deep bench, but a long series has a way of exposing weaknesses. How do you see this playing out?

(@Lets_Go_Celtics on Twitter

A: The good news is the Bucks don’t really have the personnel to expose this weakness, and — with apologize to interim coach Joe Prunty — they may not have the guidance to identify them.

Milwaukee has plenty of ball-handlers, and it’s an impressive list — if in name only: Eric Bledsoe, a brutish two-way point guard once dubbed Mini LeBron; reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon; Matthew Dellavedova, a title-winning pest; Brandon Jennings, the somehow still only 28-year-old former lottery pick; and Jason Terry, an all-time great heat-check threat.

A deeper look pulls back the facade. Terry is 40 years old and plays like it. Three-quarters of his shots are spot-up 3’s, and he’s lost steps on defense, which wasn’t great anyway. Jennings isn’t good and hasn’t been for years, if he ever was; there’s a reason he spent much of the season in China. Dellavedova played in the regular-season finale for the first time since an early February ankle injury, and before that he hadn’t been the same player he was alongside LeBron James.

Brogdon is solid, but he too just returned from missing two months for a partially torn left quad tendon. Bledsoe is the one to worry about, because he’s shown so much promise as an explosive scorer and playmaker, enough to earn a hefty contract before quitting in Phoenix. But the gap between he and Rozier (as a starter) isn’t that significant from a production standpoint:

Bledsoe: 31.5 MIN, 17.8 PPG (47.6 FG%, 34.9 3P%, 79.3 FT%), 5.1 APG, 3.9 RPG, 2.0 SPG

Rozier: 33.6 MIN, 15.6 PPG (38.1 FG%, 38.9 3P%, 75.0 FT%), 6.4 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.2 SPG

It’s somewhat worrisome that Milwaukee can win the point guard battle with Bledsoe opposite Rozier and a 6-5 Brogdon against the 5-foot-11 Larkin, but the concern for me from a Celtics standpoint is the Bucks’ ability to roll out multiple ball-handlers at once. Playing Bledsoe and Brogdon together, for example, could force the C’s out of some of their funkier big lineups.

With only Rozier and Larkin available to run point, Stevens has facilitated the offense through Horford, Tatum and even Monroe. That allowed the Celtics to play some massive point guard-less lineups, which could be effective opposite Antetokounmpo and all of Milwaukee’s length (Tony Snell, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, John Henson, Thon Maker, etc.):

But the ability of Bledsoe and Brogdon to take bigger guys off the dribble — and their quickness off the ball while Antetokounmpo handles the ball — could help Milwaukee dictate matchups:

The problem is which of Milwaukee’s guards defends Tatum and Brown, who will have the size advantage on the other end. We can talk ourselves in circles on this issue, but it seems to me the matchup problem at the point isn’t nearly as significant as the one Giannis poses from any position — or, for that matter, the ones Tatum and Brown pose with athleticism on the wings or Horford’s inside-out game poses opposite Bucks bigs. This series will be won or lost elsewhere.

Q: How much dog do you think we’ll see in Tatum? I say that because he seems rather passive at times. Which I know probably isn’t the case. But I want to see him hungry like the wolf.

@SenseiJayson on Twitter

This is the question, isn’t it? How will Tatum respond to the first of what we expect to be many playoff challenges. He has answered every call, stepping into the spotlight once Gordon Hayward went down and scaling the rookie wall that seemed so imposing entering the All-Star break. He shot 39 percent or better from distance every month but January, finishing with one of the five best high-volume 3-point shooting rookie seasons in NBA history. He continued to make strides as a scorer and playmaker in the final six weeks of the season, and he started 80 games for the NBA’s best defense. After all he’s accomplished, it’s amazing to think that he was being too passive at season’s start, because his confidence has grown along with his game. That it seems so reasonable he could take another step at age 20 is incredible. If he does, good lord:

There’s a chance he’s a playoff legend straight away, and that’s what makes this year so fun. The same could be said of Brown, although we’ve seen him on this stage before. Middleton, Snell and Parker have the length to match the C’s young guns, but Tatum and Brown have the ability and potential to leave them in their dust. It’s just a matter of whether they realize it now.

Q: Will we see injured players like Hayward, Irving, Smart and Daniel Theis at home playoff games? Away games?

@182lukeajmo on Twitter

A: You’ll see all of them in Boston. Hayward has been hanging around the team more often and showed up for big games even when he conceded it was tough to watch them, so I can’t imagine the playoffs will be different. Irving said when his season was over, “I look forward to hearing how loud it gets in the TD Garden during the playoffs and experiencing how intense the environment gets.” Smart and Theis have been on the bench regularly these past few weeks.

Whether they travel is probably up to them and the medical staff. Smart will definitely be on the road, since he’s working out in preparation of hopefully returning during the series. Hayward might, too, since technically they still haven’t ruled him out for the season. Irving and Theis are within weeks of having surgery, so it’s probably less likely they’ll travel, at least at the start.

Q: Which Celtic is going to get injured in Game 1?

@PedroLaFontaine on Twitter

A: These eyes have seen enough carnage. Pray we don’t lose any more good men out there.

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