Preview capsule for the Boston-Milwaukee Eastern Conference semifinal series that starts Sunday:
No. 2 BOSTON CELTICS (51-31, 4-0) vs. No. 3 MILWAUKEE BUCKS (51-31, 4-1)
Season series: Tied, 2-2.
Story line: They split four regular-season games, had the same record, had the same conference record and Boston only got seeded ahead of Milwaukee because the Celtics had a better record against East playoff teams — the fifth tiebreaker. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is the reigning NBA Finals MVP, but Boston’s Jayson Tatum might have been the best player in Round 1 of the playoffs. And the coaching matchup might be outstanding, considering Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer and Boston’s Ime Udoka are both disciples of San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.
Key matchup: Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday vs. Boston’s Marcus Smart. Antetokounmpo will be great. Tatum will be great. The real battle might be which guard has the better series. Both are among the very best on-ball defenders in the NBA, both are unselfish and both can take — and make — big shots when the moment demands.
Injury watch: Boston getting Robert Williams III back during Round 1 was a major lift to the Celtics’ title hopes, since he’s such a key part of their defense. Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton dealing with a knee injury is obviously a huge blow to the Bucks.
Numbers of note: The Bucks have won five consecutive playoff series, obviously going back to the start of last season. Before that, they had won five series — total — in the preceding 31 seasons combined. … The Celtics swept Brooklyn in Round 1, winning those four games by only 18 points. … Milwaukee is bidding for back-to-back trips to the conference finals for the first time since 1983 and 1984. … Tatum averaged 31.3 points in the season series, Antetokounmpo averaged 28.3. … Boston made 17 more 3-pointers in the four head-to-head meetings, 70-53. … The teams have played only once since Christmas, and Boston is a much different team now than it was in the first half of the season.
Prediction: Antetokounmpo vs. Tatum is going to be a world-class matchup, especially after the way Tatum accepted the challenge of matching wits with Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant in Round 1. Not having Middleton doesn’t help matters for the Bucks, but Milwaukee still has plenty in its arsenal. That said, Boston has home-court and is peaking right now. Celtics in 7.
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