Bench play has been integral to the success of the Milwaukee Bucks throughout the season. But how does Milwaukee’s bench compare to that of the Boston Celtics?
So far in these young playoffs, the Boston Celtics have quickly tightened up their rotation. During the regular season, the Celtics had 11 players who averaged more than 10 minutes per game while appearing in more the 50 contests. However, in the series against the Indiana Pacers, Boston only had eight players average more than 10 minutes a game while playing in all four games.
This dramatic shift in strategy on the part of Brad Stevens is not abnormal for teams to employ during postseason play, but there are other factors to consider.
The primary reason that most teams utilize fewer players during the playoffs is that their roster just does not have sufficient talent that can be trusted to play during these high-pressure games. In the regular season, teams can get away with playing less-skilled players because they want to develop them, and one game out of 82 usually has no real significance. This is dramatically different than the playoffs, where every single possession matters and winning is exponentially more important than player development.
All this is to say that lack of depth is the main reason why Stevens has reduced the size of his rotations. He cannot afford to have the likes of Semi Ojeleye, Daniel Theis, Brad Wannamaker, or Robert Williams play meaningful minutes in the playoffs because they are simply not good enough (though there is a chance that Stevens employs Ojeleye against the Bucks to guard Giannis for some reason). While Stevens would usually have another spot for Marcus Smart in the rotation, he is unfortunately injured and not expected to play against the Bucks.
The Celtics have essentially settled on an eight-man rotation in the playoffs. Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, and Aron Baynes in the starting lineup, with Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, and Terry Rozier coming off the bench.
The strength of Boston’s bench lies in Hayward. Against Indiana, the former All-Star was out on the court closing games, essentially having the role of starter though technically coming off the bench. Hayward is averaging 12.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 1.8 assists in 31.1 minutes in these playoffs and has the potential to be the X-factor that swings this upcoming series in Boston’s favor.
If Hayward starts to play like the version on himself before his leg injury, that player spearheading the second unit could pose a plethora of problems for Milwaukee. However, the weaknesses of the Celtics’ bench are just as apparent as their strengths. While both Rozier and Morris are serviceable players (though both have fallen off dramatically compared to last year’s postseason), they each only play one style.
Rozier needs to the ball in his hands to be maximized and Marcus Morris is a high-energy scorer who can either get really hot or be really cold with little room in between. This lack of adaptable players does not allow the Celtics to have flexibility when one style of play is not necessarily working to their advantage.
Also, there is the fact that those three bench players for Boston are minus defenders. The best defensive rating of Hayward, Morris, and Rozier against Indiana was 105.2, and this was against a Pacers team that averaged 91.8 points per game in the series.
While Boston’s bench has a potentially elite talent with two hit-or-miss players, the Milwaukee Bucks have the virtual opposite group of subs. Like Brad Stevens, Mike Budenholzer has tightened the leash on his rotations against the Detroit Pistons, though this was not necessarily though his own choice.
Tony Snell is coming off an ankle injury and is not looking ready to handle major minutes, and Malcolm Brogdon has still not been cleared to return to the court from his plantar fascia tear. Pat Connaughton, George Hill, Ersan Ilyasova, and Nikola Mirotic have been the ones to get the call to come off the bench for meaningful minutes in these playoffs.
While there is clearly no player from the Bucks bench that could rival a full-strength Gordon Hayward, all of them are multi-dimensional shooters. Connaughton can play shooting guard or small forward, Hill can play either guard spot, and Ilyasova and Mirotic can play the three spot in a jumbo lineup, power forward in their normal positions, or center in a small ball lineup.
There is also the aspect that Connaughton has shown that he can be the lynchpin of a deadly switch-heavy defensive scheme, and Hill is known to be a solid defender and posted a 84.7(!) defensive rating in the series against the Pistons.
These four players provide Bud with the ability to try new schemes and packages to see what works best instead of being forced to stick with what he has. Also, Budenholzer has other players that will become available to him that are capable of being part of a playoff rotation in Wilson, Snell, and Brogdon, which only increases the amount of flexibility for Milwaukee.
The biggest difference between the depth of the Celtics and the Bucks is how important the bench is to their team. While Milwaukee uses their bench to ease the load on the starters and try out new looks, the Celtics needed their bench to get past the Pacers. Boston’s starting lineup had a net rating of -1 against Indiana, while the Bucks starters had a net rating of 8.5 against the Pistons. Boston’s starters having a negative net rating while sweeping the series shows how essential their bench players are to their success.
Another way of looking at it is that Boston’s bench scored 33.0 percent of their total points against Indiana, while Milwaukee’s bench scored 30.4 percent of their total points against Detroit (and that number would have been significantly inflated due to increased bench minutes in the many blowouts). Basically, Boston’s bench scored a higher percentage of their team’s total points than Milwaukee’s bench, even though the Bucks’ starters played considerably less minutes compared to the Celtics’ starters, and the Bucks had more players play meaningful minutes off the bench.
While the Round 2 matchup of the Celtics and Bucks will primarily focus on the battle between stars Kyrie Irving and Giannis Antetokounmpo with Al Horford and Khris Middleton providing schematic problems for the opposing team, the bench players are extremely valuable for both teams.
Boston’s bench provides much needed scoring and the chance of elite talent with little flexibility and Milwaukee’s bench provides defense, shooting, and lineup versatility without star power. The dichotomy between these two groups will be a key factor to watch as the series begins, as either bench has the power to swing the series in their team’s favor.