The Milwaukee Bucks are the reigning NBA Champions for a reason and they reminded the world of that in their five-game series win over the Chicago Bulls.
After Khris Middleton exited prematurely from Game 2 due to a sprained MCL, the Bulls pulled off a dramatic win and tied the series at 1-1. Middleton’s injury was perceived as a potential turning point in the moment and it turned out to be one, although momentum swung in favor of the Bucks instead.
Jrue Holiday switched over to DeMar DeRozan after his 41-point Game 2 and held him to 11 points in two of the last three games of the series. Despite the great season that DeRozan has had, Holiday shutting him down no longer comes as a surprise given the body of defensive work that the UCLA product has put together over these past years.
Over in the frontcourt, reserve center Bobby Portis was re-inserted into the starting line-up in place of Middleton. The 6’10 Portis, who started 59 games in the regular season while Brook Lopez was out with a back injury, joined the 7’0 center and 6’11 Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee’s super-sized starting group that played a key role in their three consecutive blowout victories.
Portis was clearly eager for a bigger role after playing only five minutes in Game 2 and had three straight double-doubles to clinch their ticket to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Over the last three games versus Chicago, he averaged 15.3 points and 14.3 rebounds as he helped eliminate the franchise that picked him 22nd overall in the 2015 NBA Draft.
The ability of both Portis and Lopez to spread the floor through their above average three-point shooting allows them to share the floor with Antetokounmpo without sacrificing spacing on offense. On defense, they benefit greatly from their clear cut size advantage.
This enabled them to impose their will on the Bulls’ over-matched front court. Having these three towering players covering Holiday’s back as well is a nightmare for opposing guards who will have to deal with them at the rim on the off chance that they can get past him.
With Middleton expected to remain out of, at the very least, the entire series against the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee’s tall-ball lineup will likely have no choice but to see extended minutes together.
They will have their work cut out from them as they will have to deal with Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams, and Al Horford instead of Chicago’s Nikola Vucevic, Patrick Williams, and Javonte Green. The 6’8 Tatum turned heads in their opening round sweep of the Brooklyn Nets and has left some pundits calling him a top-five player in the league already. While Horford is already 35 years old, he remains a crafty player and load management has allowed him to remain spry in short bursts.
Meanwhile, Williams only played the last two games of the Brooklyn series following surgery to repair a torn meniscus that sidelined him for almost a month. Nonetheless, he has the potential to turn the series around with his athleticism and high motor if he can rediscover his pre-injury form. Lopez in particular may be challenged in keeping up with his quickness and the task here may fall to Antetokounmpo.
The Celtics are far superior to the Bulls at this point in time and will be a far greater challenge for the Bucks. This seven-game East semifinal may turn out to be one of the highlights of this postseason when it is all said and done. Both teams are led by young superstars in Antetokounmpo and Tatum and they are also surrounded by quality supporting casts.
Though Milwaukee may seem to have the edge with their championship experience from last year’s run, this Boston core group of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart, has made it to the Eastern Conference Finals together in 2018 and 2020. They know what it takes to win as well and carry with them the wisdom of these past few seasons.
After a seven-game Eastern Conference Semifinal classic with the Nets last year, the Bucks have their work cut out for them in the second round once again. While it will be a definite treat for the league’s fans, it will be a challenge for Milwaukee as these two teams seem to be on equal footing heading into this series.
The road to a second consecutive title is not an easy one for these Bucks, but that will only make the celebration sweeter if they do manage to come out on top anew.