No series in the 2022 NBA playoffs has featured more twists and turns than the Boston Celtics vs. the Milwaukee Bucks, who head to TD Garden for Wednesday’s Game 5 tied 2-2 after alternating wins and losses.
Although the New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns also traded wins throughout the first four games of their opening-round matchup, the higher-seeded Suns never trailed in that series. By contrast, the Celtics have never led, getting blitzed by the Bucks at home in Game 1 and losing a Game 3 thriller but rallying both times to even things.
Because of that back-and-forth nature, it has felt like whoever won the most recent game is in control of the series — and perhaps favored to win the NBA championship. Projections using both ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) and FiveThirtyEight’s model show one of the two teams claiming the title better than 40% of the time.
With those stakes in mind, let’s take a look at what we can expect from this series in Game 5 (7 p.m. ET, TNT) based on how this roller-coaster showdown has played out.
Boston throws a small wrench into Milwaukee’s game plan
The pivotal moment in Monday’s Game 4 came late in the third quarter, when Celtics coach Ime Udoka made a seemingly trivial substitution:
Subbing in a 6-foot-3 guard for a 6-foot-8 center meant the Celtics went to just one traditional big man, a look they’ve rarely used in the postseason. Before Monday, Boston had played fewer than 25 competitive minutes through seven playoff games with a lone big man. Over the last 14 minutes and 30 seconds of Game 4, they almost exclusively played that way, with the brief exception of a single defensive possession where Grant Williams (who replaced his namesake in the starting lineup) came in between timeouts and immediately returned to the bench after a rare miscue.
Finishing the game with sixth man Derrick White at guard alongside Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum at forward and Al Horford at center unlocked the Celtics’ offense. Boston’s 48 points over the final 16:30 were more than the team managed in the entire first half (47).
Whether Robert Williams is able to play in Game 5 — he’s listed as questionable — Milwaukee must be ready to take advantage of a smaller Boston group. The Bucks got good shot attempts against the Celtics’ small ball lineup, which was missing the team’s best defensive matchup against Giannis Antetokounmpo (Grant Williams), but left opportunities on the table by not taking advantage on the offensive glass. Milwaukee came up with just two offensive rebounds in 13 opportunities during that span.
With Horford typically guarding Giannis, that left Bucks center Brook Lopez with a massive size advantage over his defender. Lopez scored 10 of his 17 points in just over seven fourth-quarter minutes and might merit even more touches in the paint if Boston goes small again.
Giannis is gassed — can the Bucks get him more help?
After a brilliant Game 3 (42 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists), Antetokounmpo was outstanding but mortal on Monday, scoring 34 points on 13-of-32 shooting and grabbing 18 rebounds but handing out just five assists — his lowest total in the series.
With Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton still sidelined by a grade II MCL strain, one of the storylines of this series has been how dependent Milwaukee has been on Giannis’ individual greatness. Game 3 was the only time in this series where the Bucks outscored the Celtics with Antetokounmpo on the bench (plus-four). Overall, Milwaukee is minus-28 in the 36:32 Giannis has rested, losing almost a point per minute without the two-time MVP.
The 41 minutes Antetokounmpo logged in Game 4 were his most since Game 6 of last year’s NBA Finals, and perhaps even more taxing than his minutes in that series given Boston’s physical defense. Giannis’ fatigue was apparent during the second half, although it didn’t affect his production.
In addition to Middleton’s absence, Antetokounmpo has been affected by the Celtics’ switching defense, which has taken away the ability to generate good looks off his on-ball screens. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Giannis has averaged just 11 pick-and-roll plays per game as a screener in this series. He averaged 26 per game in the 2021 Finals.
Instead, Milwaukee’s pick-and-rolls have strictly been a mechanism to generate better matchups for Antetokounmpo, leaving him to create one-on-one. He’s more than capable of doing just that but needs someone to share the load.
Ideally, that would be guard Jrue Holiday, but Holiday has made just 35% of his 2-point attempts and 30% of his 3s in this series. Game 4 was Holiday’s worst in terms of efficiency; he went 5-for-22 from the field and missed all five of his shots in the fourth quarter.
A ‘make or miss’ series?
Part of the reason this series has felt so tumultuous is how evenly matched the teams are. As TNT broadcaster Brian Anderson reminded us during Monday’s matchup, both the Celtics and Bucks won 51 games during the regular season, meaning home-court advantage for this series had to be decided by the fifth tiebreaker (record against other East playoff teams).
So far, that’s played out in terms of shot quality. According to Second Spectrum’s qualified shot probability measure (qSP), which estimates the expected effective field goal percentage (eFG%) based on the location and type of shot, the distance to nearby defenders and the ability of the shooter, the two teams have been closely matched.
Naturally, the closer a series, the more likely it is to hinge on shot-making in a given game. There’s a reason the NBA is (correctly) tagged a “make or miss league” even though shooting variance exists at every level of the sport. In other leagues, the differences between the two teams tend to be larger, making it less likely shot-making will determine the outcome.
So far during this series, we’ve seen dreadful shot-making by Boston in Game 1 (their third-worst in a game all season, based on the difference between qSP and the team’s actual eFG% in the game), both teams in Game 3 (fifth-worst of the season for both teams) and then Milwaukee again in Game 4 (fourth worst).
The poor shooting in this series isn’t entirely random. It’s a testament to how locked in these two elite defenses are. Still, which defense will have the upper hand from night to night is impossible to predict.
By virtue of home-court advantage, the Celtics are again the favorites in this series. Boston will be at home for two of the potential remaining three games, and the edge for home teams in Game 7 is typically larger than in other games. Still, the Bucks are one good performance away from yet another turn in a series defined by them.