This series has always felt destined to go seven games, and it hasn’t disappointed so far.
It’s been physical, chippy, unpredictable, well-played and dead even – everything a basketball fan could want and then some. Whichever team recents one of the more grueling second-round series in memory has an excellent chance to win it all.
The Celtics could easily be down 3-1 right now, but Al Horford continued his torrid play with perhaps the best playoff game of his career to even the series at two. If you had Horford posterizing Giannis Antetokounmpo and flexing, chances are your bingo card is in excellent shape.
Game 5, set for Wednesday at 7 pm at TD Garden, is the biggest Celtics game in almost two years. It would be easy to focus on three Horford-related things to watch for, but instead, here are three other factors that could contribute to the outcome.
Can Marcus Smart play more bully ball?
In addition to his stellar defense and passing, Marcus Smart is also an elite finisher at the rim. He consistently uses his size to his advantage and can often outmuscle defenders without much difficulty.
Smart was relatively quiet as a scorer early in Game 4 – as he focused on getting others involved – but he played some bully ball late in the fourth to help will the Celtics to victory. Horford and Jayson Tatum were terrific, but Smart was also extremely important in putting the finishing touches on Boston’s most necessary win of the season to date.
It will be interesting to see whether the Celtics turn to that as an option more regularly in Game 5. Smart can create problems in the paint with Jrue Holiday, Wesley Matthews, Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton or George Hill on him. If he gets one any of them 1-on-1, there’s a solid chance he’ll finish. If he draws a double after a quick move, chances are he’ll hit the open man.
The Bucks have to exert so much effort worrying about Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Steph Curry – sorry, Horford – that when Boston gives Smart room to operate there’s only so much Milwaukee can do. It’s not something the Celtics can rely on all the time, but it would be wise to sprinkle it in more to present yet another area the Bucks have to monitor.
How much do the Celtics worry about Brook Lopez?
Antetokounmpo commands so much attention that it’s inevitable his teammates are going to get open looks. Between his pure dominance and Jrue Holiday’s elite playmaking, the other Bucks are often the beneficiary of their brilliance.
In Games 1 and 2, Brook Lopez wasn’t one of those players. He scored just 6 and 2 points and was essentially a non-factor. Ever since, Lopez has started to figure it out and assert himself. He racked up 13 points and 10 rebounds in Game 3 and added 17 and 7 in Game 4, and he’s starting to resemble the imposing player he has throughout his career.
A lot of his buckets in Game 4 came uncontested at the rim, as the Celtics often neglected Lopez in the paint. In the clip below (first off, heck of a play from Holiday), Lopez roams free and barely has to do anything. In Game 5, the Celtics can’t afford to lose track of him. Lopez is a capable 3-point shooter, but he hasn’t hit a single one and has only attempted three this series.
The Celtics should focus their attention on Lopez even when Antetokounmpo and Holiday drive. Over-helping burned them in Game 1, and they’ve addressed that since, but they regressed a bit in Game 4. Staying at home and always having a body on Lopez is the best way to combat his size and strength.
He may have the edge in height, but the Celtics have the personnel to slow him down. They simply can’t get caught watching ball-watching and forget Lopez exists.
Which team wins the third quarter?
For whatever reason, the Celtics have struggled in the third quarter for most of the series. The Bucks outscored them 26-18 in Game 2, 34-17 in Game 3 and 32-26 in Game 4.
Give head coach Mike Budenholzer credit, and give the Bucks credit for executing, but the Celtics are also partially responsible. For whatever reason, they haven’t looked like themselves at the start of the second half.
The ball hasn’t zipped around with the same juice as it has the rest of the game and they seem to have no answer whatsoever for Antetokounmpo-led onslaughts. They look like a team that feels it can come back from any deficit – which is both a blessing and a curse.
Of course the flip side is that the Celtics have outscored the Bucks 26-20, 34-23 and 43-28 in the fourth quarters of Games 2 through 4. The Celtics will take that tradeoff all day, but if they can piece together a strong third go a long way about quarter that could secure a 3-2 series lead.