8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Bucks -9, Over/Under: 218.5
Pushed to the brink of elimination, the Fourth-Seeded Boston Celtics look to keep their campaign alive as they travel to Milwaukee to face the Top-Seeded Bucks in Game Five of this Eastern Conference Semifinal from Fiserv Forum. The longer this particular Series goes, the more and more apparent it becomes that the Celtics’ (49-33, 4th in Eastern Conference) impressive 112-90 victory on the road in game One was nothing more than an aberration, for since that unlikely triumph they’ve been handled with startling ease. In losing each of the last three consecutive contests by a miserable 13.3 Points per Game, Boston now finds themselves not only on the verge of elimination, but hanging off the proverbial cliff with nothing short of an Offseason full of uncertainty awaiting beneath them. Indeed, much was expected of this team in 2018-2019, who after consecutive trips to the Eastern Cofnerence Finals were tabbed by many to represent the now LeBron-less East in the NBA Finals, particularly given that they enjoyed such success last year without the services of marquee acquisitions such as Kyrie Irving ((23.8 PTS, 48.7% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 6.9 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.5 BLK, 24.3 PER) and Gordon Hayward (11.5 PTS, 46.6% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 3.4 AST, 0.9 STL, 15.6 PER), with the former missing the Playoffs due to a knee injury and the latter missing the entire campaign after dislocating his foot in gruesome fashion during the Season Opener. However, what was supposed to be season of greatness, was mired by further injuries and most notably constant strife within the lockerroom, causing Brad Stevens and his Staff to tinker meticulously in search of the proper balance in their Rotation, while ultimately leaving Irving to be heavily criticized for his lack of leadership. Of course, one of the many looming questions surrounding this franchise is Irving’s future status as a Celtic, with his looming Free Agency this Summer dominating much of the conversation around the All-Star Point Guard this term. The common belief is that after such a chaotic Regular Season, concluding with what has become a very poor showing in the Playoffs, the former NBA Champion will indeed be taking his talents somewhere else. It’s been debated at nauseum as to whether or not this guy is capable of leading a contender to the Promised Land, and based off of his recent string of performances that answer appears to be a resounding “no”. After totaling Twenty-Six Points on an efficient 12-of-21 shooting (57.1%) along with Seven Rebounds, and a Postseason Career-high Eleven Assists in Game One, Irving has been rather disappointing, averaging 20.3 Points on a miserable 30.6% shooting overall, including 4-of-20 from beyond the arc (20.0%), along with 6.7 Assists in comparison to 3.7 Turnovers, all the while posting a cumulative Plus/Minus of Minus-32 over the following three outings. Say what you will, but even the most staunch advocates of Irving can’t help but acquiesce that this is not how a purported Franchise Player is supposed to play in the Playoffs. As a whole, Stevens’ charges have altogether failed in slowing Milwaukee down (apart from Game One), allowing their opponent to dictate the tempo of play, which has been much faster than what they’re accustomed to operating at; this Semifinal has averaged 102.1 Possessions per 48 Minutes, which is far greater than the 99.6 (16th Overall) that Boston averaged during the Regular Season. Needless to say, transition is NOT this team’s element, and they’ve paid for it dearly; in Games Two through Four the Celtics are Minus-25 in Fast Break Points, which has played a heavy hand in them being Minus-48 in Points in the Paint.
While Game Three’s 116-123 defeat was the closest of these last three losses, Monday Night’s embarrassing 101-113 display from TD Garden was the proverbial final nail for this era of the Celtics. Despite leading 30-22 at the end of the First Quarter, the hosts were handled with relative ease throughout the rest of the affair, particularly during the Second Half in which they were outscored 66-52. As a team, Boston shot a dreadful 37.85 from the field, including a mind-numbing 9-of-41 from beyond the arc (22.0%) with their defense eviscerated by Milwaukee’s attack. As we stated earlier, there was a huge discrepancy in terms of Points in the Paint (66-44), as well as Fast Break Points (22-13), which both favored the visiting side considerably. For his troubles, Irving continued his cold shooting streak, scoring Twenty-Three, but doing so on a dismal 7-of-22 shooting (31.8%), including 1-of-7 from deep (14.3%), with nearly half of his total coming from the Charity Stripe (8-of-9, 88.9%). In what in all likelihood will be his final home game as a member of the franchise, Irving was puzzlingly candid in his Post-Game Press Conference, stating that “For me, the Twenty-Two Shots… I should have shot Thirty”. With that said, while one Celtic seems intent on talking his way out of town, there were some that still put in a strong showing, particularly in the forms of Al Horford (13.6 PTS, 53.5% FG, 36.0% 3FG, 6.7 REB, 4.2 AST, 0.9 STL, 1.3 BLK, 20.2 PER) and Marcus Morris (13.9 PTS, 44.7% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 6.1 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 14.2 PER); the veteran Big once again filled out the stat sheet with Twenty Points on 8-of-16 shooting (50.0%), Six Rebounds, Five Assists, and a Block, while the oft-traveled journeyman added Eighteen Points on 5-of-10 shooting (50.0%), Fourteen Rebounds, and a Pair of Assists. Hayward though, was nothing more than an afterthought in 26:37 off the Bench, mustering just Two Points on 1-of-5 shooting (20.0%), while energetic sparkplug Marcus Smart (8.9 PTS, 42.2% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 4.0 AST, 1.8 STL, 13.1 PER) couldn’t manage the requisite spark his needed in his return from a hip injury, scoring just Three Points, and missing all but one of his Seven Attempts from long-range (14.3%). It goes without saying, but no team in NBA Playoff History has ever rallied back to win a Best-of-Seven Series after falling behind 3-1, which does not bode well for the Celtics, whom in the near future are expected to look very differently than they do so in the present. Take a good look, folks, for this figures to be the last time you’ll see them like this…
Meanwhile, the Basketball Renaissance continues for the Bucks (60-22, 1st in Eastern Conference), who with a win tonight will return tot he Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2001, where they fell in Seven Games to the Philadelphia 76ers. In fact, before this season, the 2001 Playoffs were the last time that this Franchise tasted success this time of year, which should provide some weight to their exponential improvement in 2018-2019. As we’ve stated over and over again in this column, Mike Budenholzer and his Staff deserve every one of the plaudits they’ve received and then some for the job they’ve done in Milwaukee this season. No, this wasn’t a franchise in need of resurrection, for after back-to-back First Round Exits, that particular heavy lifting had been completed. Instead, the former Coach of the Year has successfully taken his charges to the next level, improving by a staggering Sixteen Wins which was the third-most in the league this term. However, it goes much deeper than that, for the Bucks have gone from a middling Playoff Qualifier in the formerly meager Eastern Conference to the owning the best record in the NBA. While their opponent tonight has certainly stumbled throughout the campaign in lieu of failing to meet their lofty expectations, Milwaukee’s ascension played a MAJOR role in that outcome. They were nothing short of dominant throughout the Regular Season, and that has certainly extended to the Playoffs, where they’ve now gone 7-1, besting their opposition by a whopping 14.1 Points per Game. Now let’s take a moment to dive deeper into this particular Series with Boston, whom after Game One they’ve handled with frightening ease. It’s clear that the Series Opener was nothing more than an outlier, for in the three contests that have followed, Budenholzer’s troops have had their way with their opponent on both ends of the floor, scoring 119.7 Points per Game on 46.0% shooting, including 35.5% from beyond the arc, while dishing out 23.3 Assists in comparison to committing just 11.3 Turnovers, while on the opposite end relegating them to 106.3 Points on 40.1% shooting, including 32.1% from downtown, and bludgeoning them on the glass where they’ve outrebounded them by a commanding 4.6 Rebounds per Game. Of course, it helps immensely having arguably the best player in the game, Giannis Antetokounmpo (27.7 PTS, 578.8% FG, 25.6% 3FG, 12.5 REB, 5.9 AST, 1.STL, 1.5 BLK, 30.9 PER) performing at another level; the frontrunner for MVP has manhandled the Celtics after a poor showing in Game One, posting averages of 33.3 Points on 58.8% shooting, 13.0 Rebounds, 5.3 Assists, 1.7 Steals, and 1.7 Blocks in the last three games of this Series, oftentimes getting to the rim at will, no matter how many defenders have been in his path. A rare athletic marvel for some time now, the Greek International has further fleshed out his repertoire under Budenholzer’s watch, though the venerable Head Coach’s work with the Supporting Cast has ultimately been what has transitioned this team into being the favorite in the suddenly competitive Eastern Conference. Khris Middleton’s (18.3 PTS, 44.1% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 4.3 AST, 1.0 STL, 16.5 PER) stellar shooting (15-of-30 3FG, 50.0%) has thrived in this Series providing precious space for his teammate to barrel to the hoop, while Eric Bledsoe (15.9 PTS, 48.4% FG, 32.9% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 5.5 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.4 BLK, 19.3 PER) continues to emerge as a budding Floor General (12.3 PTS, 2.3 REB, 4.0 AST), particularly n defending the aforementioned Irving, while veterans such as George Hill (6.8 PTS, 42.8% FG, 28.0% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 11.6 PER) and Nikola Mirotic (11.6 PTS, 41.5% FG, 35.6% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.6 BLK, 16.2 PER) have found new life within this Rotation, combining for 24.8 Points on 50.75 shooting overall, including 41.2% from deep.
When we look back at this Bucks’ Postseason Run, it’s likely defining moment will be Monday’s 113-101 victory at TD Garden, for this was the crucial swing-game that could’ve provided the home side with a golden opportunity to get back into the Series. Instead, Milwaukee did was veteran contenders do, and that’s go into a hostile environment and leave with a win. Don’t be fooled by the final score, folks, for this one wasn’t as easy as it would lead you to believe, for the visitors came out slow, trailing by as many as Eleven Points late in the First Quarter, before slowly chipping away at the deficit. Budenholzer’s outfit progressively built up a head of steam as matters wore on, closing out the First Half with eight unanswered to head into Intermission down just Two Points. Later in the Third Quarter, the visiting side put together another burst, scoring thirteen out of fourteen at one juncture, to overtake the lead, which they would never relinquish. As a team, the Bucks weren’t the sharpest offensively, shooting 44.0% from the field, including a scant 8-of-37 from downtown (21.6%), while netting just 17-of-25 Free-Throws (68.0%), but thank to their play on the defensive end, they didn’t need to, relegating the hosts to just 37.8% shooting overall, and consistently besting them on the glass, where they outrebounded them 56-42. Antetokounmpo was again phenomenal, knifing through the Celtics’ defense en route to Thirty-Nine Points on 15-of-22 shooting (68.2%), Sixteen Rebounds, Four Assists, a Steal and a Block, despite getting into Foul Trouble early in the Second Half. Ironically, that was the moment in which Milwaukee put their collective foot on the gas, with the Bench coming up HUGE as both Antetokounmpo and Middleton headed to the sideline. The aforementioned Hill turned back the clock, dropping Fifteen Points on 6-of-11 shooting (54.5%), Four Rebounds, and Five Assists, while the unheralded Pat Connaughton (6.9 PTS, 46.6% FG, 33.0% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.4 BLK, 13.6 PER) added Nine Points of his own along with Ten Rebounds. In the end, Milwaukee’s Bench, which humbled Boston’s 42-16 in Game Three, yet again made a difference, outscoring their counterpart 32-7. And for those of you wondering, once Giannis returned to the fray, it was all Greek Freak; the Three-Time All-Star dominated the Fourth Quarter with Seventeen Points and Seven Rebounds down the stretch, to put his side on the brink of the Eastern Conference Finals.