So the Celtics got the inevitable news Monday night, that they would face the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Celtics lost out on potential home-court advantage long ago, so they will have to start the series this weekend at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, and they likely have four more days to prepare for Game 1.
They need the week to rest and prepare, so there was a sense of relief that they finished off the undermanned Indiana Pacers in four games to give themselves the respite.
There is a definite realization that the Bucks are not the same team they were last season, when as a seventh seed they took the No. 2 Celtics to seven games. First, Giannis Antetokounmpo is even better, stronger, and more confident.
He averaged nearly 26 points and 10 rebounds in last year’s series, and the Celtics, who struggled defending him this year, would be giddy if they held him to those numbers in this matchup. He finished off the Detroit Pistons in Game 4 with 41 points.
“Giannis’s improvement is as high as anybody’s,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He’s just getting better. That guy’s a worker. He’s got all the intangibles, and he’s already an MVP [candidate].
“We’ll have to change up how we’re guarding him the whole time. But you just have to be alert of a guy when they learn new things.”
Khris Middleton, who shot 60 percent from the field and 61 percent from the 3-point line in the 2018 playoff series against Boston, is even more of a scoring force this season as the complement to Antetokounmpo. He earned his first All-Star appearance this season and will be a focus of the Celtics’ defensive game plan.
There are two other differences with Milwaukee this year:
■ Eric Bledsoe is playing better and with more passion. He was outmatched by Terry Rozier in last year’s series and faltered in clutch moments. He said he was motivated by that and has been anticipating a rematch with the Celtics.
■ They added center Brook Lopez in the offseason. Early in his career, the 7-footer was considered a disappointment because he couldn’t rebound. Now he is an asset because of his ability to shoot the 3-pointer.
In 2014-15, Lopez made one 3-pointer in 10 attempts in 72 games as a member of the Brooklyn Nets. In 2018-19, He made 187 in 512 attempts for the Bucks.
In his first eight seasons, Lopez attempted 31 3-pointers. In the past three, he has attempted 1,224.
Because of Lopez’s ability to stretch the floor, the Bucks take a big defender (i.e., Aron Baynes or Al Horford) away from the basket, giving Antetokounmpo more room to attack the basket, and considering his unique physical ability and length, he needs perhaps two steps from the 3-point line to get to the basket.
“There’s two things about Brook,” said Stevens. “No. 1, he stretches the floor and not just to the 3-point line but a couple of feet beyond that, and defensively he’s been outstanding. They’re No. 1 in the league [defending] the rim, and he’s a huge reason why.”
The Bucks also supplemented their bench with sharpshooters Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova and provided Bledsoe with a solid backup in veteran George Hill. They added players throughout the season, so opponents wouldn’t be able to consistently double-team Antetokounmpo. He has more options to pass out of those double-teams now.
The Bucks led the NBA in scoring at 118.1 points per game because they play at such an up-tempo pace, because Antetokounmpo gets to the free throw line, and because they were third in the NBA in field goal percentage. This is an efficient team offensively, and the Celtics are going to have to make adjustments to slow them down.
Semi Ojeleye played less than one minute in the Indiana series, but Stevens may have to pull off the bubble wrap and unleash him on Antetokounmpo. Ojeleye, perhaps the Celtics’ most improving physical specimen at 6 feet 7 inches and 241 pounds of muscle, enjoyed moderate success defending Antetokoumpo during the playoffs last season and this regular season.
The key is to encourage Antetokoumpo to shoot from the perimeter. That is his lone weakness. He shot 25.6 percent from the 3-point line this season and attempted more than 200 3-pointers in 72 regular-season games.
Of course, if the Celtics back too far off Antetokounmpo at the 3-point line, he’ll simply soar to the basket for one of his posterizing dunks. The options are limited in defending the MVP candidate.
“Giannis is so good in the open floor, and they’re really effective with the way that they move the ball in transition,” Horford said. “We have to make sure that we get back and set our defense up as much as we can.
“We have to stick to what we do. We have to play our system. We have to all do our jobs on the defensive end. Everyone needs to be aware of their job on the floor, even more.
“They’re much more improved. There’s a reason why they won 60 games. The way they’re playing, it’s night and day from last year.”