Preview: Bucks at Celtics
BOSTON — Celtics coach Brad Stevens has a simple way of defending The Freak as Boston opens its first-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday at TD Garden.
“We’ll have to guard him with everybody on our team,” Stevens said when talking about the challenge of handling Giannis Antetokounmpo. “I trust Al (Horford) to guard any position. He can really move his feet, he’s got great size and length, (and) his attention to detail is excellent.
“That said, it’s not on one person to guard Giannis. We have to throw a lot of different bodies at him.”
Simple enough, right?
The injury-riddled Celtics, the second seed facing a seven in the first round, split four games with the Bucks during the regular season. Antetokounmpo, who averaged 26.9 points, 10 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game overall, was even more potent against Boston.
Against the Celtics, a team known for its perimeter defense but not so much inside, which is where Antetokounmpo does most of his damage, he went for 33.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists.
On April 3, he had 29 points, 11 boards, six assists and two blocked shots as the Bucks defeated the Celtics in Milwaukee.
“Their floor is open in transition when (Giannis) is at the four, the five, when he used to play the three, when he’s played the one,” Stevens said. “He’s a monster in transition.
“When I look at their team, they don’t have a guy at each position that’s not a good transition player. (Tony) Snell makes shots in transition, (Khris) Middleton makes shots in transition, (Jabari) Parker and Giannis coming downhill, (Eric) Bledsoe coming downhill.”
Bledsoe, rescued from the obscurity that is the Phoenix Suns, returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 (with the Los Angeles Clippers) and hopes his point guard play can lead the Bucks to their first playoff success since 2001.
“I’ve grown a lot,” Bledsoe told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “From coming off the bench to playing in Phoenix to now, I think I got a lot (more) mature in a lot of ways.
“Knowing how to run plays in the half court, knowing when to get my teammates involved and when to attack. Just a lot of things. Knowing when to be calm when teams go on a run.”
Bledsoe pleaded his way out of Phoenix in a deal that sent now-Celtic Greg Monroe and two protected draft picks to Phoenix. Milwaukee had to finish in the top six in the conference to protect this year’s pick but was blown out by Philadelphia on the final night of the season to fall to seventh. While it looked like the Suns would get the pick, the Bucks learned the pick is theirs because of a tiebreaker.
And Bledsoe is thriving.
“Bled’s huge for this team and we’ve been very consistent with that,” said Bucks interim coach Joe Prunty, who replaced the fired Jason Kidd during the season.
The Celtics, who lost Gordon Hayward in the first quarter of the first game of the season, have also lost Kyrie Irving and battling rookie Daniel Theis for the season. Defensive sparkplug Marcus Smart is out for this series after thumb surgery, but Stevens had the rest of his group ready to go (“all 11, yes”). He talked of an eight- or nine-man rotation but said fouls and injuries could change everything.
“It’s a battle. Nobody wants to go home. It’s straight-out war,” said Boston’s Terry Rozier, who has grown into a far more important role with Irving and Smart missing.
Game 2 of the series is in Boston on Tuesday night before shifting to Milwaukee. Both teams have won on the other’s court this season.