If you’re a Bucks fan and have checked twitter recently, you’d think their record was hovering around .500. Has this team been perfect? Absolutely not, but that will happen when you’re missing an all star player and load management is an important part of the regular season plan.
So far, all of this has added up to a 29-17 record and the third seed in the east behind Boston and Philly. With how deep the eastern conference is this season, where the Bucks finish in the standings will be important. Getting to the NBA finals isn’t just about having a great team, you need some matchup luck along the way. I want to look at the teams the bucks are hoping to avoid in each round of the eastern conference playoffs based on likelihood of the matchup happening. There will also be a follow up article after the trade deadline as teams will likely fill hole I reference here.
As it stands now, the Bucks would play the 6 seed in the first round of the playoffs. With the play in game being added, it brings even more teams into the mix for the last couple of spots. Even though there are 6 teams that could be in the mix, I’m going with the youngest of them all.
I don’t see a situation where the Bucks struggle with any first round opponent, at least not to the point where them winning the series is in question. Barring major injuries, I think the Bucks can withstand a lot and still advance. With that said, I think the Pacers would be the toughest first round matchup.
They’ve surprised a bit this year, as it seemed like everyone thought they were in the middle of a rebuild after trading Sabonis. The addition of Tyrese Haliburton has been a huge part of their success. He’s scoring efficiently and setting up his teammates to the tune of 10 assists per game. Between Haliburton, and the rookies Mathurin and Nembhard, they have shot creation and ball distribution from multiple lineup looks.
We also can’t overlook the rim protection provided by Myles Turner either. Overall, their defense is a weak part of the team. That’s to be expected with a young squad. Turner does his best to make up for that by being near the league lead in blocks per game. This team also does a good job of rebounding as a team. They don’t have 1 dominant player to rely on, but they have the length and athleticism to make up for it.
I picked this matchup not so much because I feel like it’s a bad one on paper for the Bucks. I chose it due to the fact this team is on the rise. This likely isn’t their season to make serious noise, but they aren’t far away. If they have a good trade deadline, things could change as well. I think the Bucks size puts them firmly over the top here. Even if the Pacers force them to go smaller, there are enough good individual defenders on the team to cause issues while the Giannis feasts offensively.
The second round is where things start to really heat up. The last two post seasons have brought absolute battles. In 2021 it was a grind of a series that resulted in the Bucks barely surviving the Nets. Last year, Milwaukee pushed the series to 7 games against Boston to ultimately fall short without Middleton. The top 4-5 teams in the east this year all have high ceilings, but which would be the toughest matchup for the Bucks?
This may seem like an odd choice here, but let me explain myself. Boston you’ll see in the next section, both Philly and Brooklyn are good, but I think the Bucks matchup well against them. Cleveland is the one team that I think matches up well against Milwaukee and has the talent to cause problems.
The Bucks may be 2-2 against the Cavaliers this season, but Cleveland is two mediocre third quarters away from potentially being 4-0. In games one and two, the scores were all but even heading into half. Huge third quarters from Milwaukee allowed them to pull away. Game 3 was a dominant effort by Cleveland that the Bucks made interesting with a big fourth quarter.
Regular season results matter, but I care more about what I see on the court. The Cavs have consistently caused problems for the Bucks. Now, we haven’t seen the teams play this season with Middleton healthy. The games may look completely different with him on the court. Even with Khris, I think this is a very tough matchup, mainly due to the matchups.
Giannis has only played in 3 of the 4 games, but he put up big offensive numbers in two of them. With that said, the length of the Cavs could be an issue. Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley are long, athletic bigs that can make life difficult for Giannis. As we’ve seen so far, the Greek Freak has been able to muscle his way to buckets in two of the games. In the playoffs where defense sag more, will that plan work? Giannis has proven he can be a good facilitator when defenses sell out to stop him, but which 3 point shooting team will show up for the Bucks?
We also have to look at the offensive potential of the Cavs. With the addition of Donovan Mitchell, their offensive ceiling has gone up significantly. They went from a fun young team with potential to a true threat. Even with Mitchell, they haven’t been the most consistent offense ever as they average fewer points per game than the Bucks. It has been more than enough however with the leagues best defense in terms of points allowed per game. They are young, they are athletic, and getting Ricky Rubio up to full speed could help their depth in a big way.
In a 7 game series, I don’t see the Bucks getting knocked out. Their struggles in the playoffs the last few years however, have been against defensive first teams. The ability for the Cavs to score in bunches, keep their opponent off the foul line and bring intensity night in and night out makes them a threat.
After not reaching the conference finals last year, I fully expect the Bucks to get there this year. Even though I think the Eastern Conference is deeper overall in 2022-2023, the matchups should be more favorable for Milwaukee. Their most likely opponent is a familiar foe that hasn’t changed much from a season ago.
This by no means a hot take, and it isn’t supposed to be. I expect Boston to cruise to the conference finals, and they just so happen to be the toughest possible matchup for the Bucks. We saw how explosive the Celtics can be last year, but the Bucks will look much different than Boston.
So far this season, offense has been Boston’s calling card. The duo of Tatum and Brown have been incredible but they reliably go 8 deep and past that have a handful of players with a lot of post season experience. They also have a lot of lineup versatility. We saw Milwaukee struggle with their small ball lineup last year. Not having Middleton hurt, but Giannis was visually frustrated at times.
Even though Al Horford is no longer in his physical prime, his old school style of defense caused a lot of problems for the Bucks and Giannis in particular. Yes, Milwaukee had a very bad shooting series, but we saw how little playmaking there is on this team when Middleton is down. Boston took full advantage of that and ended up holding on in 7 games.
We also can’t overlook the fact the Celtics are a very good shooting team. Even though Milwaukee started out the year defended the 3 well, that has fallen off the last couple of weeks. Boston has multiple players in their rotation that can drive and kick, while also being relied on to hit spot up triples. Their ability to play well with a small ball lineup also forces the Bucks to make a choice. Do they want the rim protection of Lopez, or another wing defender to help slow down the threes?
The versatility of the C’s is their greatest strength. On the flip side, the Bucks have improved there for this season. Having Middleton back is a huge boost, but we can’t overlook the addition of Joe Ingles. He gives Milwaukee another reliable passer, creator and shooter. He isn’t as dynamic as he once was, but he still makes great decisions with the ball and is a sneaky solid defender. Adding him allows for more reliable rotations and lineup combinations.
Overall, this series would be incredible. Both teams have star power and the teamwork needed to reach the NBA Finals. Even though Boston has a slightly better roster than last year, the Bucks have improved even more assuming Khris will be healthy. This could be a matchup we see in the ECF for years.
After the trade deadline next month, I’ll do a follow up on this, along with adding a finals opponent. A lot will change between now and then and I full expect a team or two on this list to be different.