Series with Milwaukee should tell us who the Celtics are
I suppose there’s some temptation to come up with some big conclusion from the Celtics’ first-round sweep of the Pacers. But I’ve got to tell you, I’ve looked, and I’m not finding one.
The 49-win Celtics were annoyingly enigmatic with occasional stretches of excellence all season long. They were resilient against the Pacers — their resolve in Game 3 after blowing an early 15-point lead was pivotal in setting up the sweep, and it was encouraging. But it was also an opponent that was playing without far and away its best player, guard Victor Oladipo.
The Pacers were an opponent worthy of respect, but not much concern. Sure, a sweep is always somewhat sweet — the Celtics won two road games in the series, one more than they won during the entire 2017-18 postseason — but frankly, they just did what they were supposed to do. Boston teams don’t raise banners for small victories. That’s more of an Indy thing.
We’ve been waiting seemingly for months for the postseason to come around and tell us who these Celtics truly are. But all we really found out in the Pacers series is that they’re going to give us another series to find those conclusions.
And anything, to paraphrase a certain tall fella who helped put a banner in the rafters 11 years ago, seems possible.
The Celtics’ next opponent will be the Milwaukee Bucks. The Runnin’ Giannises made it official with a 127-104 victory Monday over the 41-win Pistons. Milwaukee is the top seed in the East, and it sure did earn it, winning a league-high 60 games, or about as many as we figured the Celtics would win before we realized all of the talented pieces didn’t quite fit as effortlessly as we’d hoped.
The Bucks gave the Celtics a fight in a memorable first-round series last season, taking the Celtics to seven games while helping to bring back Drew Bledsoe in Boston fans’ recent consciousness. That Celtics team was a better regular season team (55 wins, No. 2 seed) than this year’s squad despite having Kyrie Irving for just 60 games and Gordon Hayward for about seven minutes. Maybe they miss Abdel Nader this year more than we knew?
This much is certain: This year’s Bucks team is vastly improved over last year’s unit. Giannis Antetokounmpo took that last long stride toward true superstardom; he’ll finish either first or second in the Most Valuable Player balloting this year, and he’d have my vote. He’s long received superstar calls — I think he’s allowed three steps plus two bonus Eurosteps on every sojourn to the hoop, which basically allows him to cover the full court on one dribble. He’s arguably the most likable player in the league, but you’d better brace yourself to be aggravated at what he gets away with. Kyrie Irving, a true star for longer, still doesn’t receive such officiating largesse.
Savvy personnel moves have allowed for the Bucks to improve, especially the July addition of center Brook Lopez, who has made an Al Horford-like transition into an adept 3-point shooter. But the biggest improvement for the Bucks is on the bench. Mike Budenholzer, a Gregg Popovich acolyte who oversaw the unexpected ascent of a 60-win Hawks team in 2015, is an enormous upgrade over Joe Prunty, who had the precise level of swagger of an overwhelmed substitute middle-school teacher during last year’s playoffs. Despite all of the contrived straining to pin the Celtics’ underachievement on Brad Stevens this season, he’s a terrific coach. But he might be no more than a draw versus Budenholzer.
I’m not ready to predict whether the Celtics will beat the Bucks, but I have no doubt that they can. Some might suggest Gordon Hayward’s stellar play — other than getting turned into Frederic Weis 2.0 by Pacers posterizer Myles Turner Sunday — should be the takeaway from that series. But his 20-point gem Sunday wasn’t anything new — he’s been playing at a high level, even approaching Utah Hayward level, for a couple of weeks now. His rise in production and confidence is without a doubt the most encouraging development of this season.
If he can keep playing like this, and the other good things about this team continue to be good, they can beat the Bucks, even without the estimable Marcus Smart. That means, among other requisites, that Kyrie Irving must be in can’t-stop-me-now Playoff Kyrie form, that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown at least alternate excellent performances, that Terry Rozier doesn’t get caught up too much in his sequel duel with Eric (not Drew) Bledsoe, that Al Horford averages 17-9-5 while doing his myriad small things that are actually big things, that Marcus Morris makes his share of no-no-yes! shots, and that someone (Semi Ojeleye, perhaps) can get in Giannis’s way often enough during his one-dribble, five-step sprints to the rim.
It’s a lot to ask. But it’s not too much to ask. Beyond mild encouragement, there’s not much of value to take away from what we’ve seen so far from the Celtics this postseason. But now, the quality of opponent and degree of difficulty rise. The season-long questions about whether the Celtics will ever be what we thought they would will be answered. The Bucks will be here, and the buck will stop here.