The Milwaukee Bucks held most of the cards going into the last day of the regular season.
They were in the East's No. 2 slot, one game ahead of the Boston Celtics, but knew Boston held the tiebreaker. The Bucks saw the Brooklyn Nets lurking as a potentially dangerous No. 7 seed.
The Bucks effectively conceded their final game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, sitting all their key regulars save for Jrue Holiday -- who played eight seconds before committing an intentional foul so he could log his 67th game, and trigger a $306,000 bonus. By doing so, Milwaukee foisted an unpleasant choice onto the Celtics: If Boston beat Memphis in its finale, it would leapfrog Milwaukee into the No. 2 spot -- risking that matchup against Brooklyn. Lose to the Grizzlies (who had nothing to play for, and rested all five starters), and the Celtics -- assuming a Philadelphia 76ers win over the Detroit Pistons -- would fall to No. 4. That meant a series against the Toronto Raptors, amid rumblings at least one key Boston player was not fully vaccinated -- and thus ineligible to play in Toronto.
Boston won, and got that No. 2 seed -- and a date with the Nets. The Bucks avoided Brooklyn, but their gambit cost them home-court advantage in this mega-series. For the second consecutive postseason, it's possible Milwaukee is playing the "real" NBA Finals in the second round -- only this time without Khris Middleton for at least the first part of the series as he recovers from a leg injury. (I'm less convinced of the "real NBA Finals" framing this time around, given how great the Phoenix Suns have been when healthy and the Golden State Warriors now rampaging at full throttle.)
Boston has been by far the league's best team since Jan. 1. It is 38-12 in that span, and has outscored opponents by about 12.5 points per 100 possessions. Anything over double digits suggests historic dominance. The No. 2 team in that stretch -- Phoenix -- was plus-8 per 100 possessions. For the season, the Bucks are plus-3.2.
Jayson Tatum was the best player (by a lot) in a series featuring Kevin Durant. If he's the best player in this series, Milwaukee is in trouble. With Middleton out, the Bucks need Giannis Antetokounmpo at his peak to beat Boston four times in seven tries -- with a potential Game 7 on the road. They need him to be the best player by a comfortable margin. Antetokounmpo is obviously capable, even against a Boston team that has more options defending him than any other opponent. He is the league's most destructive two-way player -- a two-time MVP and reigning Finals MVP who appears to have overcome his free throw issues and can toggle between all three front-court positions.
If there is a player who can solve Boston's impenetrable, ultra-switchy defense, it is Antetokounmpo.