The Bucks vs Celtics: A playoff clash of contrasts

I can think of no better series to start our playoff previews than the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics matchup. The Bucks ended the year as the league’s top overall team, powered by a stretched out offense and the rim-breaking chaos of Giannis Antetokounmpo, our own MVP pick. Giannis’ dominance on both ends of the court helped power the supercharged Milwaukee offense and defense. The Bucks led the league in net rating, a measure of how efficiently the team scores and limits opponent’s production. His destruction of poor Thon Maker let the world know that Playoff Giannis has arrived.

For Boston, the season had the same dramatic and often confusing structure as a Kyrie Irving post-game soliloquy. Favored by many to run the East, the Celtics instead fell victim to infighting and inconsistency. Gordon Hayward struggled to return from last year’s ankle injury, while young players like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum readjusted to their new roles. Despite this turmoil, the Celtics still ended the year as the fourth seed. In round one, they dispatched the overwhelmed Pacers in a 2000s-era throwback.

Both team now meet in what appears to be a tight Eastern Conference semifinal matchup. Milwaukee won the regular season series 2-1, splitting the two of the games in Boston and winning at home. Stats included are from NBA.com and Basketball Reference.

The standard stats

Milwaukee Bucks
60-22
113.5 offensive rating (4th) 
104.9 defensive rating (1st)
8.6 net rating (1st) 
Beat the 8 seed Detroit Pistons 4-0 in their last matchup
Average MVP player score: 10.15 (2nd)

Boston Celtics
49-33
111.2 offensive rating (10th)
107 defensive rating (6th)
4.2 net rating (6th)
Beat the 5 seed Indiana Pacers 4-0 in their last matchup
Average MVP player score: 2.57 (12th)

I calculated the average MVP score by looking at all eligible players on each team from my MVP scoring model. This stat quickly showcases the quality of each player’s individual season, with Giannis leading the pack.

Stars to enjoy: Giannis and Kyrie

Giannis absolutely wrecked the league this season, producing the top statistical performance for my scoring model. His breakout showcases both a diverse skill-set and a ruthless efficiency that makes Shaq proud. Kyrie Irving ended the year as the top Celtic player, finishing thirteenth in my rankings. Irving’s slithery handles and offensive output powered so much of Boston’s success.

These graphs show how the two stars performed, scored by the z-score, or standard deviations from the average player. Basketball Reference helpfully breaks out definitions for all these stats in their glossary.

The per-game stats look fairly competitive. Kyrie produced a better assist, steal, and turnover rate to Giannis’ superior scoring, rebounding, and blocks. The difference becomes a lot clearer once you turn to advanced stats.

Here, Giannis’s impact surpasses Kyrie on every meaningful metric. He produced more win shares, owned a higher rate of offensive possessions, and provided more value both in the box-score plus minus and value over a replacement player. Giannis did this while still shooting at a far more efficient clip. No disrespect intended to Kyrie, but only James Harden comes close to replicating Giannis’ excellence.

The fulcrum role players who may decide it all

Kyrie and Giannis will certainly own most of the conversation, but the series won’t be settled by this one-on-one battle. Each team will fight and scrap for preferable matchups for each of its players, and within that scheming and switching we can focus in on what I’ve called the fulcrum players.

These players have the largest swing in performance from wins to losses,. While their good games do not promise a victory, it puts their team well on the way. To find these guys, we need to chart out the difference in game score (Basketball Reference’s unified metric for total game performance) in wins and losses, benchmarked against the team’s total variance. I eliminated players with small minutes played and with season ending injuries,

For Milwaukee, newly acquired Nikola MIrotic has the highest disparity between his performances in victories and defeats. Stars like Giannis, Eric Bledsoe, and Brook Lopez have minimal change in their game score for either results, but Mirotic more than doubles his game score in wins over losses. Since he was acquired at the trade deadline, Mirotic has played in 14 eligible games. When he’s above-average, the Bucks went 6-0; anything below, and they slipped to a pedestrian 4-4. Among the players with a larger sample size, Ersan Ilyasova also appears to be a signal for team success. His great games produced a team record of 25-5, while below-par results ended up at 19-12. For context, the Bucks went 28-8 when Giannis had an above-average game, and also 28-8 when he didn’t: the perils of being the league’s best team. 

Boston, befitting their season-long struggle for consistency, show wide swings between victories and losses. Aron BaynesTerry Rozier, and Gordon Hayward all have a higher disparity in average game score. Baynes’s good games produced a record of 15-2, while anything below left the Celtics at 13-13. Scary Terry Rozier had Boston going 26-10 when he’s on and a dismal 20-22 when he’s off. Hayward’s return from injury into All-Star form has haunted the team all year long. When he’s doing well, the Celtics ended up 23-9; when he stumbles, they are 20-19. Despite a less pronounced delta than his teammates, Kyrie still has stark splits between his good and bad games. Boston ended up 22-12 in his great performances and 15-18 in his poor ones.

These players will not decide the series outright, but their performance give us something to monitor. If Mirotic gets hot from three, or Terry Rozier beats Eric Bledsoe again, the series just might flip.

Team stats to track

We’ve covered a ton of individual metrics, but how do these teams compare on a couple key stats? For this matchup, I wanted to focus on three main areas that get covered heavily with the Bucks and the Celtics and may represent the inflection point for this series: points in the paint, three point shooting, and overall efficiency. I’m a huge proponent of the idea that efficiency is the most important team metric, represented perfectly by the Golden State dynasty, and as such, we should look at how each team performed in these areas, using the invaluable NBA.com stats hub.

What happens when the Celtics have the ball? In the regular season the Bucks allowed the league-lowest effective field percentage, the lowest free-throw rate, the lowest points in the paints per game, and had the highest defensive rebounding rate; best of luck scoring on the league’s best defense, friends. These areas hit at Celtics weaknesses-the C’s are 24th in offensive rebound rate, 23rd in points in the point, and dead-last in free-throw rate produced. I don’t see much success happening at the rim, beyond the ridiculous layup parade that Kyrie somehow manages to produce regardless of defense. They did, however, end the year 7th in effective field goal percentage, powered by a 6th overall shooting percentage in the midrange and a 7th overall rank in three-point rate. These stats project that they’re unlikely to find much success in the restricted area scoring or on the boards, given the Bucks’ strengths. 

The keys for the Celtics to initiate any offense will revolve around efficiency in the midrange and beyond the arc. Here, the Bucks defense may have some cracks, as they allow the league’s most three-pointers and the 22nd worst opponent shooting rate for threes. Part of this is schematic, as Coach Budenhozler hinted at in this SI profile, but given the variability of the Celtics’ performance game to game, a couple hot shooting nights from deep may be the way to spring the upset.

The Bucks face similar challenges. Boston is no slouch defensively, coming in at 6th for defensive rating, 5th for points in the paint allowed, 9th for opponent effective field goal percentage, and 6th for opponent three point percentage. Yet, the Bucks, and especially Giannis, may be able to find gold at the rim; the Celtics allow other teams to shoot 62.8% in the restricted area, middle of the pack for the league, while the Bucks had the third-most efficient clip within that region.

They’ll need to maintain their third point barrage to keep the lanes open (taking 38.2 per game, good for second overall), and the Celtics allow roughly the same rate of three pointers made that the Bucks ended up shooting (34.4% allowed, 35.3% scored). For the Celtics, mitigating the Giannis damage at the rim and keeping the Bucks to that lower three-pointer success rate will be key to stopping what ended up being the fourth-best offense in the league.

Prediction time

The universal volatility for Boston players between game scores in wins and losses underlines a key difference between the two teams. Milwaukee led the league in wins, and only lost back-to-back games once all year. Boston, however, had two four-game losing streaks, five three-game losing streaks, and somehow also a longer consecutive winning streak than the Bucks at eight games. Their inconsistency hides either a playoff juggernaut or a flawed team ready to be exposed. The Bucks have the best player, the more consistently great squad, and home court advantage. The Celtics have the talent and roster to produce beyond their regular season totals, but that hope hasn’t materialized fully at any point this year. 

Ultimately, this prediction proved quite difficult. I don’t believe Giannis can be stopped, but I know Al Horford will do his damndest to do just that. I think the Bucks have the better star and a better rotation holistically, but the theory of the Celtics still instills fear in any declarative prediction, and Playoff Kyrie is a legendary supernova waiting to happen.

Yet, I refuse to bet against the Greek Freak. He’s too dominant, too big, too strong, and just too fun in this transcendent season. The Bucks should be able to keep scoring efficiently at the rim, and their defensive strengths match up well to what Boston will try to do. I’d rate my confidence here at 65%, but there’s no glory in hedging.

Bucks in 6.

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