8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Bucks -5.5, Over/Under: 229
With the All-Star Break now firmly in the rearview mirror, attention is paid towards the race to the Playoffs, where both the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks figure to reach, with their matchup tonight from Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin serving as a backdrop for a potential postseason preview. After consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Finals coupled with the return to health of a number of key players, monumental things were expected out of the Celtics (37-21, 4th in Eastern Conference) in 2018-2019, with nothing short of an appearance in the NBA Finals in all likelihood viewed as abject failure for the most successful franchise in NBA History. However, this has been far from a magical carpet ride for Boston, who has struggled to meet such lofty expectations throughout the campaign, with injuries and a startling lack of chemistry impeding their evolution into the unit that we all expect them to eventually become. After the sorely needed respite of the All-Star Break, Brad Stevens’ charges find themselves tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for Fourth Place in the Eastern Conference, trailing their opponent tonight by 6.5 games in the standings. Indeed, the Break couldn’t have come at a better time for this team, who had been nursing a number of injuries, including All-Star Point Guard Kyrie Irving (23.6 PTS, 49.8% FG, 40.9% 3FG, 4.9 REB, 6.9 AST, 1.6 STL, 25.2 PER), who had missed the final two outings heading into the Intermission with a mildly-sprained knee. The outspoken Irving, who has often been publicly critical of his teammates, missed the entirety of the Celtics’ previous Playoff Run, and has been in and out of the Lineup over the past month due to various maladies, sitting out nine of the past twenty-two contests. However, the 6-time All-Star is more than likely to play tonight, after testing his bulky knee during the All-Star Game itself, logging Thirteen Points, Nine Rebounds, and Six Assists in Twenty-Four Minutes of action for Team LeBron this past Sunday Night, after which he described feeling “very happy” with this return.
Despite the rotating cast of characters of late, Boston has slipped into something of a groove, winning twelve out of their last fifteen games heading into the All-Star Break, including a 118-110 victory over the Detroit Pistons in which they were without the services of not only the aforementioned Irving, but Backup Point Guard Terry Rozier Jr. (9.1 PTS, 38.4% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 3.2 AST, 0.9 STL, 13.6 PER) and Power Forward Aron Baynes (5.7 PTS, 46.6% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.6 BLK, 15.0 PER), the former due to an illness and the latter courtesy of an ailing foot. Leading 57-52 at Halftime, the hosts erupted in the Third Quarter, outscoring the Pistons 34-20 and never looked back. This was exactly the type of balanced, team effort that Stevens that the faithful at TD Garden had been patiently waiting for, as the home side featured six players in double-figures, led by Sophomore Swingman Jayson Tatum (16.5 PTS, 45.3% FG, 37.9% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.8 BLK, 16.1 PER) with Nineteen Points on 8-of-18 shooting from the field, along with Four Rebounds, Four Assists, and a pair of Steals. Gordon Hayward (11.2 PTS, 43.8% FG, 33.7%% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.0 STL, 15.1 PER) added Eighteen Points, while Al Horford (12.7 PTS, 52.8% FG, 36.9% 3FG, 6.8 REB, 4.0 AST, 0.9 STL, 1.4 BLK, 19.7 PER) and Jaylen Brown (12.7 PTS, 45.0% FG, 31.6% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.5 BLK, 12.9 PER) finished with Seventeen Points apiece. Granted, the fact that Boston was once again successful with a depleted roster is hardly surprising, for Stevens and his Staff have done a tremendous job over the past few seasons in such an instance, but what the young Head Coach has yet to figure out is how to make all of these pieces work as one cohesive group when everyone is available. Irving is clearly the alpha dog of this unit, but his inclusion with the younger players hasn’t been consistently smooth. Hayward’s return from a horrific dislocated foot that cost him all of the 2017-2018 campaign has been very gradual, though the former All-Star Shooting Guard has a long way to go before recapturing his form from Utah. Tatum, who wowed as a Rookie, has hit somewhat of a Sophomore Wall, with his shooting percentages in decline from last year. Lastly, the likes of Brown and Rozier, who played huge roles in place of their more heralded teammates during last year’s Playoff Run, haven’t responded as well as one would like returning to lesser roles. Indeed, this is a puzzle that has proven to be extremely difficult for Stevens to solve, and while he may have finally settled on a consistent rotation, he’s running out of time to get the maximum out of it.
Meanwhile, as everyone expected the Celtics to fill the void in the East left by LeBron James’ departure from the conference, it has been the Bucks (43-14, 1st in Eastern Conference) that throughout the first two-thirds of the campaign that have emerged as the most serious contender to the throne. It’s been a bonafide basketball renaissance in Milwaukee, who have been on a tear of late, winning thirteen out of their last fifteen games heading into the All-Star Break, and have their fan base buzzing with the Playoffs looming over the horizon. Despite back-to-back postseason appearances, it’s been a very long time since this franchise could be considered as anything remotely close to a contender; Milwaukee has advanced to the Playoffs on thirteen occasions since the 1988-1989 term, but has emerged from the First Round just once over that period of time, enjoying a trip to the Conference Finals back in 2000-2001. When we last saw them, the Bucks disposed of Central Division rival Indiana in a 106-97 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, before entering the All-Star Break. Despite getting outscored 32-21 in the Third Quarter, the visiting side closed this one out in impressive fashion, putting together a 30-18 final stanza in which the hosts visibly ran out of gas. In what was largely a defensive battle, Mike Budenholzer’s charges were the more aggressive unit, taking residence from the Charity Stripe, where they knocked down 21-of-29 Free-Throws (72.4%), outscoring the Pacers by Eight Points in that regard, and hammering them on the boards (52-43), particularly on the offensive glass where they were Plus-6. Five different players scored in double-figures for the Bucks, led by none other MVP candidate and All-Star Captain Giannis Antetokounmpo (27.2 PTS, 58.1% FG, 22.3% 3FG, 12.7 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.4 STL, 1.4 BLK, 30.3 PER) with Thirty-Three Points on 12-of-22 shooting from the field (54.5%), including 9-of-10 from the Free-Throw Line (90.0%), along with Nineteen Rebounds, Eleven Assists, Two Steals, and a Block. Swingmen Malcolm Brogdon (15.8 PTS, 50.6% FG, 40.8% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 3.3 AST, 0.7 STL, 17.8 PER) and Kris Middleton (17.1 PTS, 43.6% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 15.7 PER) added Seventeen and Fifteen Points respectively.
With a win tonight, the Bucks can match their Win Total from the previous season with Twenty-Four Games to go, which should inform you just how meteoric their rise this year has been. However, most of us should have seen this coming. Already possessing one of the few truly dominant players in the league in the form of Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee pulled an absolute coup in luring Budenholzer away from the dysfunctional Atlanta Hawks Organization, hiring the former NBA Coach of the Year in an attempt to further cultivate the untapped potential of not just the Greek International, but the team overall. Unsurprisingly, that has been exactly what has happened. After toiling away in the middle of the league in most offensive categories last season, the Bucks have improved dramatically in most areas in 2018-2019, averaging 116.9 Points (6th Overall) on 48.0% shooting from the field (2nd Overall), including a league-best 57.2% from within the arc (1st Overall), and 26.2 Assists (8th Overall). With that said, that improvement has also extended to the defensive end of the court as well, where they have yielded 107.1 Points (6th Overall) on 43.0% shooting overall (1st Overall), including 47.7% inside the arc (1st Overall), along with 48.8 Rebounds (1st Overall) and 5.9 Blocks (2nd Overall). Furthermore, they don’t foul their opponents, permitting the fewest Free-Throws made against thus (15.4), while ranking tops in the league in Free-Throw/Field Goal Attempt Ratio (16.7%). Budenholzer has proven to be mastermind in employing spacing and ball movement in order to maximize his shooters, which has really been a boon to the likes of the aforementioned Brogdon and Middleton, and figures to do the same for the newly acquired Nikola Mirotic (16.7 PTS, 44.7% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 8.3 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.8 BLK, 17.8 PER), whom the Bucks added at the Trade Deadline from New Orleans. The 6′-10″ native of Montenegro is the prototypical Stretch-4 that should flourish next to a player such as Antetokounmpo, with the impact his addition had on Anthony Davis and the Pelicans during their second-half surge a year ago serving as evidence to this potential match made in heaven. Mirotic missed the last four games since being traded to Milwaukee with a calf injury, but should make his debut tonight.