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The NBA is one of the most powerful institutions in all of sports. There are some things, however, that even Adam Silver can't prevent, like injuries or Tim Donaghy selling his betting picks for $40 on Cameo.
The reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks' chances of repeating were dealt a significant blow when All-Star Khris Middleton sprained his left MCL in the Bucks' first-round series against the Chicago Bulls. The Bucks are +175 on BetMGM to beat the red-hot Boston Celtics in Round 2, but they'll need freakish performances from more players than just Giannis Antetokounmpo if they're going to upset Boston.
Filling the void (or staring into it)
Antetokounmpo and Middleton are often compared to Batman and Robin. In reality, they're really more like Batman and Alfred. Batman fares just fine without Robin. Without Alfred, though? That's a different story.
Middleton is key to Milwaukee's success. As my colleague Frank Schwab noted on the Yahoo Sportsbook Daily podcast, Middleton is the Bucks' closer. He was an absolute killer in the 2021 Finals, shooting 75% in clutch time. This season, Middleton is hitting 40% of his threes in the clutch.
When Antetokounmpo drives to the basket, off-ball defenders on the perimeter have to make a decision on whether to let him continue 1-on-1 or to collapse on the "Greek Freak." If they don't help out, it usually ends in a basket or a foul. If they collapse, Antetokounmpo kicks the ball out to Middleton for a mid-range jumper that's about as automatic as you'll see in the NBA.
To say that this series will be an uphill climb for the Bucks is understating the situation. Milwaukee is 7-9 without Middleton this season and is about to face what has been the league's best offense and defense for the last four months.
The Bucks stop here
The Celtics have won 30 of their last 36 games, largely due to the stifling defense they've been playing. Boston has more clamps than a hospital. All five Celtics starters ranked in the top 18 in defensive rating this year (minimum 1,800 minutes played). It's no surprise Boston tops the NBA in defensive efficiency.
The Bucks led the league in defensive efficiency a couple seasons ago, then dropped to sixth last year. This season, they're 13th. Only two teams forced less turnovers than Milwaukee did this year and no team gave up more 3-pointers than the Bucks. Without Middleton, who's an underrated defender, Milwaukee is suddenly a below-average defensive team. That's not the position you want to be in when you're facing Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Antetokounmpo lives off of his ability to score at the basket, but that's going to be tough sledding against a Boston team allowing the second-fewest points in the paint. The Celtics have waves of defenders who can match up with him. I'm sure we'll see plenty of double-teams the closer Antetokounmpo gets to the rim, which means guys like Wesley Matthews and Grayson Allen will have to step up in Middleton's place. They're no Robins, though, and they're definitely not Alfreds.
The Celtics are -225 at BetMGM to win the series. That may seem like a steep price, but I think it's a bargain. Milwaukee isn't the same defensive force it used to be and the loss of Middleton leaves it way too outmatched by Boston's rotation. You can reduce the juice by taking the Celtics -1.5 on the series spread. There's also some value in a Boston sweep at +650.
Stats provided by Basketball Reference, teamrankings.com, StatMuse, and nba.com.