Coach Budenholzer and the power of positive thinking

At 12-4, the Milwaukee Bucks are in the middle of their best start to a season since 1985-86. No longer talented underachievers, this team expects to win, regardless of how far they fall behind.

Following up from their loss to the Memphis Grizzlies last week, the Milwaukee Bucks have responded with two gritty wins at home. It hasn’t exactly been easy however, clawing back from a 22 point deficit against Chicago, before storming back from 17 points down against Denver.

After the game against the Nuggets, the feel in the locker room post-game is far from a celebratory one, in fact, there’s a sense of calm among the group, as if the result was never in doubt.

This group has developed an extraordinary sense of belief in one another, which is somewhat surprising given they are still ironing out the kinks in a brand new system under Mike Budenholzer. Antetokounmpo sums up that confidence in a matter of fact way.

“This year we’ve realised how good we are and how talented we are,” Antetokounmpo said. “We know we are gonna make shots, we know we are gonna get back in the game.”

Point guard Eric Bledsoe, fresh off a 23-point, five rebound, five assist effort, including back-to-back fourth quarter triples, is even more specific in his appraisal of where the credit deserves to fall.

“It’s Bud. He’s told us if we are open shoot it, don’t hesitate and we’re doing it at a high rate,” he explained. “Unfortunately, it didn’t fall for us in the first half but later on in the game they started to connect.”

Through the seasons first weeks, the analytical sector of the basketball market has been giddy when analysing the transformation of this Bucks outfit.

Their previously anaemic 3-point offense has morphed into one of the most dangerous in the league, while their insanely aggressive defensive principles –to put it politely– have been replaced with a basic approach programmed around coercing their opponents into low percentage shot attempts.

That in itself would be enough for this squad to make a jump, but when you pair it with unlimited servings of self-confidence, you find yourself in possession of a potent recipe for success.

Budenholzer himself, is far less willing to take credit for his teams success, while conversely being open to taking responsibility for his teams shortcomings.

This is unquestionably a polar opposite from last season, where former coach Jason Kidd would routinely blame his teams losses on the ‘energy and effort’ of the players. To a man, the Bucks squad is effusive in their praise for the impact Coach Budenholzer has had through his first few months in Milwaukee, although he himself, typically underplayed that notion at practice on Tuesday.

“Well, I think it’s a lot more them,” Budenholzer said with a shrug. “But I mean there’s no doubt they’re hearing the same message about shooting when they’re open and shooting with confidence. We’re going to play the same way from the start of the game to the end of the game.”

That consistent approach came to the fore against Denver, when the previously 0-for-7 from deep, Khris Middleton, buried a step-back 3-point shot to give the Bucks a five point lead with just 27.6 seconds left on the clock.

Continuing on, Budenholzer mentioned the importance of consistency with his message to the group through adversity.

“I do think there’s something for that,” Budenholzer said. “They start to really figure out what you believe in and what you’re going to really take to the grave. I think those things come through when you’re working on it through September and through training camp and into the season so hopefully it’s clear and direct messaging.”

The Bucks found themselves trailing by ten points heading into halftime against Denver, but according to Antetokounmpo, the message was simple from the coach.

“He came in and said, ‘Okay, guys. You know what you have to do. Just put some energy in this game and you’re going to win this game.’”

Responding to a follow up question from The Athletic’s Eric Nehm, Antetokounmpo gave Bucks fans their best anecdotal evidence yet that their team is in the best of hands moving forward compared with previous years.

“I don’t know what the difference is. Probably Jason would have yelled at us and we would have stayed close in a shell. And sometimes when guys got yelled at, they had a tendency not to play as hard and play a little bit more scared. But with Coach Bud, it’s always coming from a good place.

“He gives you the green light, but he’s always going to scold you. He’s going to talk to you. Like when you’re messing up, he’s going to let you know. But when you do good stuff, he’s always going to tell you and make you feel positive and make you play for the team.”

For so long a frustratingly talented group trotting out mediocre results, something finally feels different in Milwaukee. For the first time since the Ray Allen days, the Bucks give you the impression they could actually compete in the East.

Sometimes, a little positive reinforcement is all a team needs.

Follow Kane Pitman on twitter: @mkebucksaus

Game 7 – Milwaukee @ Boston – One game to either win or go home

Celtics Bucks Basketball
AP Photo/Morry Gash

The Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics are set to square off one last time tonight at the TD Garden, it what is the pinnacle of NBA playoff basketball. Game 7.

Milwaukee were able to hold off a Celtics last quarter rally, on the back of 12 fourth quarter points for Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 6. In what still may be the last ever NBA game in the Bradley Center pending tonights result, the Bucks left the arena victorious, and forced their first Game 7 since 2010 against Atlanta.

Home court has been the decider in all six games so far, leaving the Celtics slight favourites heading in. Looking back, the Bucks would feel they potentially should have won Game 1 after forcing overtime, and Game 5 if they could have simply knocked down a shot or two. Fortunately they get one more crack at a post season road win as Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers wait at home for their next opponent.

Antetokounmpo responded to any critic suggesting he wasn’t aggressive enough in Game 5, by getting up 23 shots and finishing with 31 points and 14 rebounds. He was the dominant force on the floor and took over down the stretch to turn a 80-78 advantage with 7:13 left into a 97-86 victory.

For Boston, Terry Rozier loomed as the danger player earlier, scoring 11 first quarter points and helping the Celtics run up a nine point lead at one point. With his very public battle with Eric Bledsoe still in the fore front of the publics minds, Rozier continues to have his way with Bledsoe. Boston cooled off overall after the first quarter to finish shooting just 27 percent from deep, Rozier himself going 4-for-12.

The Bucks made a lineup adjustment for Game 6, as Thon Maker was inserted into the starting lineup to replace Tyler Zeller. John Henson did not get up for the fourth straight game but did board the flight back to Boston and remains some chance to return tonight. IF Henson is to play for the first time since Game 2, it will be interesting to see if he starts, and what type of minutes they give him with Maker having been so influential as the series has rolled on.

This first round series is evenly keeled at 3-3 right now, the overall season series is at 5-5. The Bucks started their 2018 NBA campaign in Boston on October 17th. They are now in danger of ending their season in the same building 162 days later. Or do Giannis and friends have a greater story to tell in this post season?

Kane’s Keys To Victory:

  • Role players lifting the Boston lid: It’s been a series determined on home court, we know that, but for the Bucks, Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton have showed up in every game. Jabari Parker, Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell and Thon Maker on the other hand have not been able to get it going in Boston. Those four have combined for 53 points in the Bucks losses, whilst in the wins, they have poured in 114. They’ve been great at home, but the work has been left to far too few in Boston. That needs to change tonight.
  • Eric Bledsoe: It’s been a puzzling series for Bledsoe, who was outstanding in the final few months of the regular season. Coming into the series you felt that he was one of the key reasons why the Bucks would overmatch Boston in seven games. Thus far, he has been a non factor and the Bucks are suffering. Bledsoe is averaging just 12 points per game on 39 percent shooting from the field, well down on his 17.8 points on 48 percent shooting over the very large 71 game sample size of the regular season. It’s been a shocking drop off through six games, but all can be forgiven if he can find a way to contribute tonight.
  • Stingy defense: Overall, the Bucks have done a sensational job defending the ball over the last four games. They allowed Boston to score an average of 116.5 points per game in the first two losses, but since, have held them to a meagre 93 points. They are regularly able to hold Boston to late shot clock situations, and as a result the Celtics are having a hard time getting good looks. Certainly a factor in this has been Boston often settling to play isolation offense, which is essentially the anti Brad Stevens system, with Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart are two key culprits in that regard. Nonetheless, the insertion of Thon Maker into the series, with Giannis and the return to sensational defense of Middleton has allowed the Bucks to stay in, and win games when things aren’t going perfectly for them down the other end. This needs to be the case once more.

Follow Kane Pitman on twitter: @mkebucksaus

Game 6 – Boston @ Milwaukee – Bucks head home for do or die BC contest

Jaylen Brown, Giannis Antetokounmpo
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

The equation has become rather simple for Milwaukee after five games in this first round series with Boston. Win or go home. A disappointing – and somewhat controversial – five point loss in Game 5 has now placed Milwaukee in the perilous position of facing an elimination game. The series remains on home court, neither side has been able to snare victory on the road, and for the Bucks to force a seventh game on Saturday, that trend will need to continue.

Milwaukee went cold offensively Tuesday night at the TD Garden to make just 36 percent of their field goal attempts. The numbers were even bleaker from beyond the arc where they were only able to connect on 9 of their 33 attempts. Despite the struggles, with under two minutes left they found themselves within striking distance. The earlier mentioned controversy arrived courtesy of a horribly missed shot clock violation on Al Horford. Horford’s feet were both flat on the floor when the 24 second shot expired, yet he was allowed to get the shot up and the Celtics recovered the rebound. It allowed a further 24 seconds to run off the clock and all but sealed the Bucks fate.

Marcus Smart made a successful return for the Celtics, finishing with nine points, five rebounds, four assists and three blocks in 26 minutes on court. He was his usual energetic self on both sides of the floor and came up with numerous influential plays including finding Horford with an assist from his back with under 30 seconds left. Smart was the injection of energy Boston needed, and will continue to need on the road in Milwaukee tonight.

A big reason for the Bucks wins in Games 3 and 4 was the contributions of guys other then Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Unfortunately the help didn’t arrive in Game 4, as Thon Maker, Matthew Dellavedova, Malcolm Brogdon and Tony Snell could only muster four points between them. Snell was particularly frigid on the night, clanging his five three-point attempts off the rim in just 12 minutes. Without doubt those four players will need to have a greater impact tonight if the Bucks are to warm up offensively.

On the injury front, John Henson missed his third straight game in Game 5, still suffering from back soreness that has plagued him since the second game in the series. With Tyler Zeller really struggling to have any influence at all on the series, the Bucks will be hoping Henson is available to return tonight in some capacity, though as of now, he is listed as doubtful.

In what looms as potentially the last NBA game in the Bradley Center, the Milwaukee faithful will be out in full force to support their team. The stakes can’t possibly get any higher. Either win and fight another day, or lose and start your vacation. It’s going to be a big night in the cream city.

Kane’s Keys To Victory:

  • Focus on Giannis: Giannis attempted just ten shots in Game 5. Let that soak in. TEN shots. It’s an incredible number for one of the leagues most dangerous players with the ball in hand to have that little amount of attempts in an absolutely crucial playoff game. Giannis spoke postgame about his aggressiveness, he’s aware of what he needs to do, but it can’t all fall on his shoulders. Head coach Joe Prunty needs to do a better job of getting him the ball. Prunty needs to adjust as the night goes on and be able to put Giannis in the positions he needs to succeed. The Bucks need a big night from Giannis to stay alive, that’s indisputable.
  • The Bledsoe defense: In a rather cringeworthy passage of play that I’m sure most people have seen by now. Eric Bledsoe’s lack of effort on defense was on display for all to see on Tuesday. Mid way through the second quarter with the Bucks down 8 and looking extremely fragile, Bledsoe left the red hot Jaylen Brown (44 percent from deep in the playoffs) with all kinds of space on the perimeter. When Brown caught the ball, Bledsoe made zero attempt to even take a step towards him, he didn’t move an inch. Brown knocked down the shot and Bledsoe was benched for Dellavedova. Bledsoe is an extremely good defender when locked in. Unfortunately it hasn’t been the case nearly enough in these playoffs and he’s running out of time to rectify a poor series overall.
  • First quarter influence: After five games in this first round matchup, the equation appears simple. Win the first quarter, win the game. The Celtics are +31 in their three victories in the first quarter, whilst the Bucks are +22 in their two wins. Boston had major troubles early in Games 3 and 4, only mustering 29 total points in the first quarter as the Bucks defense ratcheted up. It provided the Bucks with the launchpad they needed to surge to victory and i’m certain they are aware that another fast start tonight is vital. Fall behind and the questions will begin to surface.

Follow Kane Pitman on twitter: @mkebucksaus

Game 5 – Milwaukee @ Boston – Bucks looking to carry momentum back to TD Garden

(AP Photo – Morry Gash)

Milwaukee knew something had to change after losing the first two games in Boston, the emphatic response that ensued throwing this first round series on it’s head. With the series now locked up at two a piece, the Bucks head back to Boston to try and do something that neither team has been able to achieve thus far. Claiming victory on the road.

Head coach Joe Prunty would have been fully aware adjustments were required, though it was the forced change that has proven to be the most influential. John Henson started and played 37 minutes in both of the first two games, providing a respectable presence at the five without being a game changer. Those 37 minutes per game were a bump up of 11 on his season average, and he withdrew from both game 3 and 4 with back soreness. This pushed Tyler Zeller to the starting role and Thon Maker into the rotation.

Maker’s feverish energy sparked the Bucks in game three and it carried over into game four. Registering five blocks in each contest, Thon has been an absolute terror in the paint for the Celtics offense and has now forced the Celtics to counter his influence moving forward.

Jabari Parker and Matthew Dellavedova have also been key contributors for the Bucks, who desperately needed help for the simply outstanding Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, who continue to score with incredible efficiency. The Bucks star duo have combined to shoot a ridiculous 84-for-136 (62%) on the series, leading their team back into what is now essentially a best of three series.

For Boston, it’s been about shooting the ball, as Milwaukee have clamped down defensively, forcing them into tough shots that they have not been able to make with the regularity they did earlier in the series. Boston shot just 40 percent form the field in Milwaukee, and will hope the lid comes of the rim at the TD Garden in Boston Tuesday night.

On the injury front, Celtic guard Marcus Smart is listed as questionable, his return from a thumb injury potentially on the cards after it was revealed on the ABC broadcast of game four that his next review was scheduled for Tuesday in Boston. Smart hasn’t suited up since March 11th, when the injury was sustained in the Celtics loss to the Indiana Pacers. For Milwaukee, Henson will again miss, as Prunty revealed at shoot around this morning that he did not travel with the team to Boston.

Milwaukee are 1-3 at the TD Garden on the season, as they return to the venue they were blown out in last Tuesday. If the Bucks are to win the series and move on to the second round, they simply have to steal home court from Boston. Time will tell if the momentum so clearly in their possession heading in will carry through to bring a series altering result tonight.

Kane’s Keys To Victory:

  • Protect the glass: There’s just no other way to slice it, the Bucks have been utterly destroyed on the glass in this series so far. Milwaukee have astonishingly been out rebounded 26-54 on the offensive glass. Predictably resulting in a lop sided second chance point count that sits at a miserable 24-77 in the Celtics favour. Combined across the Bucks wins, they are still -25 in offensive boards and -24 in second chance points. If you weren’t aware of the series results, you would be well within your right to assume the Celtics had swept the Bucks with that kind of disparity in key stats. Giving Boston repeated opportunities to score in front of a parochial Garden crowd will not bode well for the Bucks chances. They simply need to find away to minimise the damage in this area.
  • Bench contributions: Heading back to Milwaukee the overwhelming question mark loomed over the Bucks second unit. Could they find a way to contribute in a positive way? The answer was a resounding yes as Maker swatted ten shots, Parker provided two-way effort and Dellavedova returned to his pesky self over games three and four. It was evident the Bucks were able to feed off the always raucous playoff crowd at the Bradley Center, but the question now lingers as to whether they are able to get it done on the road. Antetokounmpo and Middleton are doing it all, they’ve had able companions over the last two, that will need to continue for Milwaukee to continue it’s winning ways.
  • Cool off red hot Jaylen: Second year man Jaylen Brown is making a name for himself these playoffs, going to another level in what was already an impressive campaign for him in 17/18. Brown is averaging 23.8 points per game over the series on a scorching 46 percent from beyond the arc. With the Bucks surging to a 20 point lead mid way through the third quarter in game four, Brown came alive to score 17 points down the stretch and almost pinch and unlikely victory. Beware of Brown, he is turning into a post season monster before our eyes.

Follow Kane Pitman on twitter: @mkebucksaus

Game 3 – Boston @ Milwaukee – Bucks face must win game three at the BC

Giannis Horford
Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

The Bucks headed home to Milwaukee Tuesday night after an extremely disappointing 106-120 game 2 loss in Boston. Coming off an epic game one, where the Bucks turnovers and concession of offensive rebounds burnt them repeatedly, it was an unfortunately similar story to start out in game 2.

The Celtics raced out to another double digit lead in the first quarter,, as the Bucks gave the ball away seven times in the period. Second chance points again became a thorn in the Bucks side, as it was Boston who appeared more desperate to track down loose balls. A 13-0 run for Milwaukee tied the game at 35, as Shabazz Muhammad was inserted into the starting lineup and provided a spark of energy the Bucks so desperately needed. Unlike the first contest, Boston steadied to never let Milwaukee edge in front and closed out to hold a nine point lead at the main break.

The second half fizzled out into a one way contest, as the Celtics continued to push out the lead which reached 20 points with 7:22 remaining in the fourth quarter. It was the familiar faces of Boston from game one that torched Milwaukee again as Terry Rozier (19 points), Marcus Morris (19), Jaylen Brown (17) and Al Horford (14) were able to make a number of outrageous contested shots to keep the Bucks at bay.

With the win, Boston took care of home court and secured a vital 2-0 lead heading into game three. It moved Boston to 4-2 on the season against Milwaukee and now leaves the series hanging in the balance.

Giannis Antetokounmpo with 30 points nine rebounds eight assists, and Khris Middleton with 25 points were again outstanding for Milwaukee, but they need to be able to find multiple contributors. Taking the responsibility for the loss, the two Milwaukee stars were downcast but ready to move on after game two. Giannis keeping it simple when analysing what went wrong.

“I think as a team we didn’t show up tonight,” Antetokounmpo said.

On the injury front, John Henson is labelled as doubtful for tonights game with back soreness. Back issues are not a new thing for Henson, who has from time to time missed games with soreness. After averaging 25.9 minutes per game in the regular season, he has played 37 in each of the first two games in this series. With Tyler Zeller playing just ten minutes across the two games so far, the Bucks will be hoping Henson can get up to play.

After such an epic end to game one, that type of effort out the gate was disappointing and not overly expected. Now, Milwaukee return home, in front of what will be a rabid Bradley Center crowd looking to help it’s team get back into this first round series.

Game three tips off at 8:30PM CST.

Kane’s Keys To Victory:

  • Put up or shut up: Two key components of what was expected to be a competitive Milwaukee team in this series are Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker. Through two games, both have been major disappointments. Despite their poor play, both guys made interesting comments in the fall out from game two. Bledsoe has been taken to the cleaners by Terry Rozier so far. When Matt Velazquez asked him post-game whether he takes that personally, Bledsoe responded “I don’t even know who the f*** that is”. Jabari Parker on the other hand has shown very little effort on defense and had no impact offensively which has resulted in him only getting 12 minutes per game in Boston. Parker expressed his disappointment about his reduced role at Milwaukee practice on Thursday. Whenpressed on what he can do to get more playing time, Parker’s response was interesting. “Be on my coach’s good side. Whatever that is, just try to be on the good side.” He said. No, Jabari, you can earn playing time by showing effort on defense and turning up ready to play. The Bucks need Bledsoe and Jabari in game three, they’ve put the pressure on themselves, and now they need to back up the talk.
  • Correct first quarter woes: In game one the Bucks were down 12 at the end of the first. In game two they were down 11. This hasn’t been due to Boston tearing out of the gates ready to destroy the Bucks, it’s been Milwaukee destroying themselves. 15 turnovers across those two first quarters has allowed Boston endless opportunities to score and had the TD Garden rocking early. Now the series moves to Milwaukee, and the Bradley Center will be at fever pitch come 8:30PM. Milwaukee need to ensure they give the crowd something to get excited about early and carry the momentum through the night. The Bucks had more turnovers in the first quarter than Boston did for the whole night game two. That’s not good enough.
  • Find the range from three: Outside of the red hot Khris Middleton, the Bucks offense has been anaemic from beyond the arc. Milwaukee have made just SIX three point shots outside of Middleton so far. Tony Snell, Eric Bledsoe, Jabari Parker, Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry need to start connecting from deep to give this offense the spacing it needs. Overall the Bucks have attempted just 38 triples and when you have a superstar like Giannis working overtime for every bucket in the paint, you’ve just got to make his life easier in any way possible. Hopefully some home cooking allows Milwaukee to find the range.

Follow Kane Pitman on twitter: @mkebucksaus


Game 2 – Milwaukee @ Boston – Bucks look to level series after epic Game 1

(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Game 2 of the first round series between the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics tips off tonight at the TD Garden, two days after a wild game 1 was played out at the same venue.

When Terry Rozier crossed Eric Bledsoe out of his shoes before draining a clutch three with 0.5 seconds left in regulation, the raucous Boston crowd were ready to start the celebrations early. They quickly took their seats once more however, as a Khris Middleton prayer somehow hit nothing but net, and the game headed to an extra period.

The Celtics went on to outscore the Bucks 14-8 in overtime, to clinch a 113-107 game 1 victory. Rozier did the damage in the extra period, scoring 8, to give him 11 of his 23 total points in the last 5:01 of game time.

Turnovers and foul trouble will be a focus for the Bucks, as they committed 20 turnovers, while both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe fouled out of the game. In the following days two minute report, the NBA announced that both of Antetokounmpo’s final two fouls were incorrect calls. One coming late in regulation, one in overtime. When Joe Prunty was asked if he’d seen the report at shoot around this morning, he wasn’t willing to get too caught up in the report.

“I’m aware of it [the two minute report], but at the end of the day, we’re down 0-1.”

He’s right, at this point, yes you would like those calls to be different on the night, but they weren’t, and now the focus for Milwaukee is getting the all important road split and tying the series. When asked how the group is feeling leading into tonight, Prunty was upbeat.

“We’re very focused, all our guys were locked in at shoot around, we know what we need to get accomplished.” he said,  “I was impressed from yesterday, in terms of retention from practice, things that we walked through, things that we need to do on both ends of the floor. So we know all of our guys are locked in.”

Malcolm Brogdon followed a similar line when I asked if there was any concern about suffering a let down after such a hard fought loss.

“I’m feeling good, i’m feeling confident, but there’s always concern when you find yourself down a game in a series so it’s important for us to come out and win this one tonight so we have some momentum going back home.”

Overall the Bucks look like a group ready to take the Celtics best shot. Last year, the Bucks were able to head back to Milwaukee with the series tied at one a piece. Tonight, in Boston, the aim is to achieve the same result.

Kane’s Keys To Victory:

  • Find a little help for Giannis and Khris: The Bucks have been top heavy all season. Giannis, Middleton and Bledsoe have largely carried this team to the majority of their victories. In game one, Bledsoe picked an unfortunate time to have a rare poor performance. In 32 minutes he had just nine points and four assists, while committing five turnovers. Jabari Parker was another key player that was well off his game, playing just 14 minutes for two points and displaying some questionable effort on defense. Prunty tightened the rotation to effectively eight men with Tyler Zeller the ninth, only playing four minutes. The Bucks need more contributors and it will be interesting to see if a Matthew Dellavedova or a Shabazz Muhammad see some time tonight. Giannis and Khris scored 66 points between them. The rest of the squad only contributed 41. That’s not going to cut it.
  • Cut down on the turnovers: The Bucks dug themselves an early double digit hole in game 1, committing eight turnovers in the first quarter. They were able to tidy up their play somewhat the rest of the way but 20 overall is not going to be a catalyst for a road playoff victory. 16 of the giveaways came from the starting group as Blesoe (5), Giannis (4), Middleton (3) and John Henson (3), struggled to take care of the ball against the leagues best regular season defense. Milwaukee need to continue to look to move and share the ball, but with control. The first quarter turnover frenzy resulted in Milwaukee attempting only 15 shots to Boston’s 24. That doesn’t seem like a ratio that will be conducive to winning basketball.
  • Keep prying hands away from big Al: Al Horford is a hell of a player. He won’t always give you huge box score numbers, but he’s smart, and he knows how and when to take advantage of a vulnerable defense. On Sunday afternoon he went to work. Horford was a dominant force down low, finishing with 24 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocks. A large number of his points came at the charity stripe however, as he knocked down 13 of his 14 attempts. It’s absolutely vital for Milwaukee to keep key players from reaching on Horford in those post up situations. Giannis is notorious for his aggressive defense, which is incredibly effective a lot of the time, but can see him rack up unnecessary fouls that the Bucks can ill afford. If big Al is able to spend that much time at the free throw line again tonight, the Bucks might be in trouble.

Follow Kane Pitman on twitter: @mkebucksaus

Game 1 – Milwaukee @ Boston – Bucks kick off 2018 playoffs in Boston

Boston Celtics v Milwaukee Bucks

The 2018 regular season is done and dusted. What ever you think you learnt throughout the 82 game long grind can be thrown out the window. Because over the course of the next two weeks, the first team to four wins moves on, the other goes home. It all starts this afternoon at Boston’s TD Garden in game one.

Milwaukee ‘lucked’ into the East’s seventh seed by virtue of getting completely obliterated by the white hot Philadelphia 76ers. A 28 point deficit heading into the first break took all heat out of the game, as the Bucks fate was quickly placed in the hands of the Miami Heat and Washington Wizards, playing at the same time. The results came in, and the Bucks drew the undermanned Celtics.

The regular season series between the two sides finished at two a piece, with each team splitting their two home contests. The Bucks are heavily backed to win the series, partly due to the extraordinary talents of Giannis Antetokounmpo, but largely due to the bevy of injuries that have attempted to derail Boston’s 55 win season from opening night.

Star free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward went down in the first six minutes of the season with a fractured left ankle. Kyrie Irving battled knee issues all season, before finally succumbing on the eve of the playoffs. Role players Marcus Smart (thumb) and Daniel Theiss (knee) are both unlikely to make an appearance in the post-season. It’s been a horror run for a squad that had strong hopes of making it though the East this season. In comparison, the Bucks are finally healthy, for the first time in years at the very right time. Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova returned over the final two games to give the Bucks their entire roster to choose from for the first time this season in game 82. Perfect.

In the absence of Hayward and Irving, it has been second year man Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum that have stepped up all year, averaging 28.4 points and 10.4 rebounds combined over the regular season. Both athletic wings can take the ball to the rim but as with the majority of modern NBA players, can stretch the floor beyond the three-point arc, with both connecting on greater than 39 percent of their three-point tries.

In reaching the post-season for the second consecutive year, the Bucks have begun to form a nucleus that has been in this moment before. It will be the third playoff appearance for Giannis, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe, though this afternoon will be the first ever playoff game for fourth year Bucks, Jabari Parker. After missing the 2015 and 17 playoffs with his ACL injuries, Parker will finally get his opportunity on the big stage.

The Bucks, laden with talent, have been somewhat of a disappointment this season. But as mentioned earlier, the regular season is done and dusted, it’s a fresh start. A clean slate. Milwaukee get a chance to go on the road and steal home court advantage back in their favour. Tip off is at 12 CST on TNT.

Kane’s Keys To Victory:

  • Stay in the contest early: The parochial Philadelphia crowd came ready to explode Wednesday night and it’s fair to say the Bucks didn’t handle it well at all. Today will be no different in Boston, with a crowd used to success ready to get behind their squad. Since the All-Star break the Bucks have been terrible in first quarters. Since the mid season break, the Bucks hold a defensive rating of 113.9 and a net rating of -7.9 in first quarters. Talk about giving your opponent a leg up. This is playoff basketball, if the Bucks let the Celtics get on top early, it could make for a long afternoon.
  • Giannis, Giannis, Giannis: No surprises here. They key to the Bucks success in the playoffs will be Giannis breaking loose. Across the four game series with Boston, Giannis is averaging 33.5 points and 10.8 rebounds this season. The Celtics have at times forced him to the perimeter, with Antetokounmpo being ‘held’ to 24-for-45 shooting in the two losses. Boston possessed the leagues number one defense over the course of the season, and their ability to slow down Giannis will prove pivotal today.
  • The battle of the big men: Though undermanned, an area where Boston appear to have the edge on paper is at center. Aron Baynes, Greg Monroe and Al Horford will all rotate through the center position against John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Thon Maker. The Bucks finished the season last in rebounds per game, and have consistently had issues with slowing down teams scoring in the paint. Horford is a multiple time all-star, Monroe is as talented as any big man in the post, and Baynes is coming off a career high 26 point night in the regular season finale. The Milwaukee big men have largely been outmatched this season, they need to get on top early in this series for Milwaukee to control the paint.

Follow Kane Pitman on twitter: @mkebucksaus