~ I don’t know why but I find it funny that two of the most impactful players this postseason are Rodney Hood and George Hill. Both of whom made up the terrible supporting cast that Lebron had last NBA finals in Cleveland. Hill was dealing with back spasms for a chunk of the playoffs last season but playing with Lebron brings a degree of pressure that I don’t know if Hood and Hill were prepared for. Lebron is also his own offensive system and if you don’t fit within his construct then you may be dealing with a lot of DNP-coach’s decision. This postseason has been different though. With Enes Kanter dealing with a separated shoulder and Moe Harkless dealing with an ankle injury, Hood has stepped up for Portland. With Malcolm Brogdon being out with a foot injury, George Hill has stepped up for Milwaukee. Call it better health, opportunity, confidence, fit, role or whatever, but a couple buy-low trade chips are paying dividends for their respective teams.
~ Instead of picking Milwaukee outright over Boston, I decided to weasel out of a prediction and say whoever wins between Milwaukee versus Boston will win the east. I was favoring the Bucks but I was worried they were going to remain steadfast in their core principles from the regular season. I first had to see if they were willing to change their style of play during a series before I could confidently pick the Bucks. In my last article I wrote about how Boston was a bad matchup for Milwaukee and it certainly showed game one. The Bucks had to make the necessary adjustments if they wanted to turn around the series after a blow out game one loss. Mike Budenholzer has arguably been the best pickup this off-season and once again proved his worth by out coaching Brad Stevens with better coaching tactics. After game one, the Bucks started Nikola Mirotic in place of Sterling Brown. I’m a huge Sterling Brown fan but after game one it was clear that he isn’t a true shooting threat or a proficient enough driver which became a problem for the symmetry of the Bucks offense. Mirotic gave the Bucks more size and shooting which helped open up better driving angles for Giannis.
It felt like the Bucks used Giannis in more screening situations especially late in game. Whether that be Giannis the ball handler with a ball screen, Giannis setting the ball screen himself or Giannis setting off-ball cross screens, it felt like Milwaukee was forcing the Celtics to negotiate on as many screening scenarios that involve Giannis as possible. On the other hand it felt like Boston didn’t utilize the Irving/Horford pick-and-pop as much like in game one. A lot of that had to do with Milwaukee switching on the ball screen more often.
The Bucks switched on ball screens more often as compared to containing almost every ball screen in game one. The Bucks don’t necessarily have the personnel to switch on defense but there’s still benefit to switching even with less than personnel: it affords time on recovery’s, helps contain point of attack moves and baits the offense into head hunting. So instead of a smooth motion based offensive play for Boston you could get something like Kyrie dancing on Brook lopez. The Bucks would then collapse on Kyrie’s drive in the paint and force a kick out, either resetting the offense or giving up a three. Considering that Boston shot 30.7% from three this series, maybe giving them space on the perimeter isn’t that bad of an idea. Boston also doesn’t really have a true post threat either so the worry for a big on small cross match in the paint is lessen.
The Bucks bench just dominated the Celtics bench. I’ve already talked about George Hill but Pat Connaughton and Ersan Ilyasova were major contributors with Malcolm Brogdon giving them a boost last game. Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier were terrible and getting Marcus Smart back wasn’t helping with offensive production off the bench for Boston. No one on Boston could guard Giannis, too many times did Boston settle for jump shots and when they were down late in the game the offense felt too erratic with no purpose behind their actions. Kind of like how it’s been all season.
I still think Boston was a bad matchup for Milwaukee but it just so happens that the Bucks have a great coach of their own to make the correct adjustments after game one. Boston never rebounded. And you know what else helps? Having arguably the best player in the league, that’s what. With Malcolm Brogdon coming back, the Bucks having home court advantage throughout the playoffs, Giannis playing at the top of his game and a coach who is showing he is more than capable of making in-series adjustments bodes well for title consideration. I said before the playoffs started that who ever won the Boston-Milwaukee series will win the east and I’m obviously staying with that assertion. The reason why I didn’t pick Milwaukee out right to beat Boston was because of matchup but with the Bucks displaying that they aren’t afraid to switch up their style gives me the confidence in saying the Bucks are the favorite to win the NBA title. (Assuming Kevin Durant misses the Finals)
~ The Rockets better beat Golden State now that Kevin Durant is out for the rest of the series. If they don’t, that would be a colossal failure and a wasted opportunity. The Rockets moaned and wined about how they would’ve beat Golden State if it wasn’t for Chris Paul missing the last two games. There’s no excuses now.
~ The other two series are entering game sevens. My prediction before the second round started was Toronto over Philadelphia and Portland over Denver. I’ll stick with my picks even though my confidence level is waning after watching the games play out. I thought Toronto was going to beat the Sixers without much stress but clearly I overestimated Kyle Lowry and the Raptors supporting cast. I still think whoever wins will lose to Milwaukee anyway. Portland winning at Denver for game seven is the tougher proposition. Nikola Jokic has been one of the consistently great players throughout the postseason and Jamal Murray is asserting himself as the primary perimeter scoring threat. The Blazers on the other hand are dealing with injuries to key players and expecting Rodney Hood to stay hot is a difficult trust exercise. Both teams would have home court advantage versus Houston in the west finals even though the Rockets should be favored in both matchups.