Lowe’s prediction: Why this Celtics-Bucks series looks so close

This series is about trust — how much you believe the Boston Celtics have finally come together, and how much weight you place on the Milwaukee Bucks‘ 86-game track record of championship-level dominance.

In the macro sense, this is a Bucks cakewalk. Milwaukee won 11 more games, with a point differential double Boston’s. The Bucks hold home court. They have the best player, and they can play him as many minutes as they need.

But postseason series do not play out on the macro level. They are seven games between two teams, not 82 games against 29 rivals. Boston brings advantages that could make this a much more competitive series than big-picture numbers suggest. The Celtics can win.

Malcolm Brogdon will miss at least the first two games. Who knows how he might look upon returning. He matters a lot. (So does the injured Marcus Smart, Boston’s go-to defender against Khris Middleton — who turned into Michael Jordan in last season’s playoffs.)

With Sterling Brown starting in place of Brogdon, Boston will have an easier time hiding Kyrie Irving in a series in which Milwaukee might go Kyrie hunting — treating Irving the way Irving’s Cavaliers famously treated Stephen Curry. Without Brogdon, Milwaukee has one fewer quality wing for small-ball lineups featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo (or one of Ersan Ilyasova/Nikola Mirotic/D.J. Wilson, depending on your positional taste) at center — groups Milwaukee will need more now.

They need them because of Al Horford. He has always defended Antetokounmpo well. No one can stop Antetokounmpo — not this souped-up version with more sneering confidence, and an emerging jump shot. But Horford makes him work. He is one of the only defenders alive capable of playing off Antetokounmpo, girding himself for the coming assault, and staying in front of the likely MVP without conceding a parade of dunks.

Scoff if you like. Antetokounmpo averaged 25.7 points, 9.6 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game on 57 percent shooting against Boston in last season’s first round. Horford clearly did not stop him.

But Boston has a history of outscoring Milwaukee with Horford and Antetokounmpo on the floor, and that extended into this season. (The sample size is tiny, obviously.) Something about that matchup troubles the Bucks.

Boston is probably not much worried about anyone beyond Antetokounmpo. Even without Smart, they have enough rangy wings to throw at Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and the rest — and to switch a lot. This series might come down to Horford and Antetokounmpo — at both ends.

If Boston starts Horford and Aron Baynes, Horford and Antetokounmpo will be positional matches as nominal power forwards. Most coaches would keep with the Baynes-Horford duo. Boston outscored opponents by almost 20 points per 100 possessions with those two on the floor in 163 regular-season minutes, per NBA.com. They stabilized Boston’s slumping defense. The Celtics just swept Indiana. Why change?

Baynes is also smart walling off the paint in transition — a must against Antetokounmpo. He provides one more big help defender behind Horford.

But the Celtics could not score with Baynes and Horford against Indiana. Boston was minus-5 in 43 such minutes with a scoring mark — 90 points per 100 possessions — that looks like a typo.

Baynes also gives Brook Lopez a resting place on defense. That end of the floor will determine Boston’s chances. Boston’s defense is very good, but it can hold Milwaukee’s offense — third-best overall — down only so much. Milwaukee should score at something like a league-average rate (at least). Boston’s offense is the shakiest of the four units; can it hit league average against the NBA’s stingiest defense?

Dragging Lopez into streams of Irving pick-and-rolls is the obvious soft spot. The Bucks prefer to have Lopez hang near the rim. That setup concedes open midrange jumpers. The guys defending Irving — mostly Bledsoe and George Hill — have to stay on Irving’s hip:

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