7:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Bucks -3.5, Over/Under: 226
A pair of Eastern Conference powerhouses clash tonight in Beantown as the Milwaukee Bucks face off with the Boston Celtics in the Season Opener for both teams from TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. For the second consecutive season, a sterling run through the Regular Season failed to translate into Postseason success for the Bucks (56-17, 1st in Eastern Conference), who will be looking to finally get over the proverbial hump in 2020-2021. In each of the last two seasons, Milwaukee finished with the NBA’s best record, winning 116 games (.748) over that span, by far and away the most in the National Basketball Association. However, in the 2019 Playoffs, the wasted a 2-0 lead over the eventual NBA Champions, Toronto Raptors, in the Eastern Finals, dropping four consecutive contests en route to a shocking elimination. Unfortunately, history would repeat itself last season, with Mike Budenholzer’s charges running into a brick wall in the form of the Miami Heat, who thoroughly vexed them in a five-game gentleman’s sweep. After three games, two-time reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo (29.5 PTS, 55.3% FG, 30.4%, 13.6 REB, 5.6 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.0 BLK, 31.9 PER in 2019-2020), suffered a high ankle sprain that knocked him out of the matchup altogether, with the eventual East Champions proving to be a terrible matchup on a variety of fronts. Now heading into 2020-2021, there are many questions that need answered for a franchise that has been knocking on the door for a few years now. Are they simply a Regular Season team? Has the rest of the league figured out Budenholzer? Is the Supporting Cast up to par? And most importantly, will Giannis be plying his trade for the Bucks following this season?
While the answers to many of those questions have yet to be revealed, the faithful in Milwaukee will rest easy knowing that Antetokounmpo will not be leaving town anytime soon, eventually putting pen to paper on a mammoth supermax contract extension worth a whopping $228.6 million over the next five years. This of course is a seismic turn of events for not just the club, but the rest of the league as well; with the 26-year old hitting Free Agency, a wealth of suitors would have been lining up well in advance for his signature, potentially shifting the balance of power in the NBA for years to come, but now that that discussion has been rendered moot those same teams will have to reassess their approach. Kudos to the franchise for being able to sell the Greek International on staying in Wisconsin, which hasn’t been much of a Free Agent destination over the years, though they did manage to make some interesting moves to reinforce the Supporting Cast around the Greek Freak. In one of the biggest moves of the Offseason, Milwaukee pulled off a massive four-team deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets, and New Orleans Pelicans acquiring the services of veteran Point Guard, Jrue Holiday (19.1 PTS, 45.5% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 6.7 AST, 1.6 STL, 17.0 PER in 2019-2020), and parting ways with (Point Guards) Eric Bledsoe (14.9 PTS, 47.5% FG, 34.4% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 5.4 AST, 17.6 PER in 2019-2020) and George Hill (9.4 PTS, 51.6% FG, 46.0% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 3.1 AST, 16.9 PER in 2019-2020), along with a wealth of Draft Picks. In many way, Bledsoe played the role of scapegoat in the Bucks’ recent Postseason struggles, with the 31-year old mustering just 13.1 points on just 41.1% shooting from the field, including a miserable 25.4% from downtown over the last three years in the Playoffs. A year younger, Holiday is viewed as a better natural fit alongside Giannis within Budenholzer’s system, which places a heavy emphasis on spacing and ball-movement; a career 35.4% shooter from three and having averaged at least 6.0 assists in eight consecutive seasons, Holiday appears to be an upgrade over his predecessor. With that said, it remains to be seen if his presence will be enough to get this team to where they want to be. Remember, they also attempted to add the services of the sharpshooting Bogdan Bogdanovic (15.1 PTS, 44.0% FG, 37.2% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.0 STL, 15.1 PER in 2019-2020) in the Offseason as well, but the deal apparently fell apart, with the Association having docked Milwaukee a Second Round Pick in the 2021 NBA Draft as a result.
Meanwhile, the Celtics (48-24, 3rd in Eastern Conference in 2019-2020) are also on a quest to get over the proverbial hump, after narrowly missing out on the NBA Finals once again, eliminated in six games at the hands of the Miami Heat in the Eastern Finals. As the landscape in the East continues to change, the lone constant over the past seven years has been Boston, who have been one of just two teams (the other being the Toronto Raptors) in the conference to qualify for the Playoffs in each of those seasons. However, in advancing to the Conference Finals in three of the last four campaigns, it’s become clear that this team is missing that final requisite ingredient to return to Finals glory, which is something that this franchise, more so than any other, is synonymous with. Brad Stevens’ charges bounced back from a disappointing 2018-2019 exchanging the mercurial Kyrie Irving for Kemba Walker (20.4 PTS, 42.5% FG, 38.1% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 4.8 AST, 20.0 PER in 2019-2020), hoping that the All-Star Point Guard would prove to be a much better fit with the club’s young nucleus of talent than his predecessor was, namely (Forwards) Jayson Tatum (23.4 PTS, 45.0% FG, 40.3% 3FG, 7.0 REB, 3.0 AST, 1.4 STL, 20.4 PER in 2019-2020) and Jaylen Brown (20.3 PTS, 48.1% FG, 38.2% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.1 STL, 16.9 PER in 2019-2020). As (General Manager) Danny Ainge continues to tinker with the balance and chemistry of this rotation, has he done enough to make the Celtics the favorite in the Eastern Conference? Are their young guns indeed ready to ascend to another level?
Coming into this new season, you will notice that Boston will look differently in a few varying departments, particularly in the Frontcourt where thy hope to have addressed one of the biggest weaknesses of the previous campaign: size. Though Stevens has plenty of length and athleticism at his disposal, particularly on the wings, they simply lacked the size necessary to bang with some of the larger, more physical teams in the league, which is something that was painfully evident in their matchup with the aforementioned Heat in the Eastern Finals. Veteran Center, Enes Kanter (8.1 PTS, 57.2% FG, 7.4 REB, 1.0 AST, 22.4 PER in 2019-2020) left in Free Agency, leaving the only true Center on the roster being Daniel Theis (9.2 PTS, 56.6% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 6.6 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.3 BLK, 17.9 PER in 2019-2020), who was routinely overmatched against larger bigs. Ainge added veteran (Center) Tristan Thompson (12.0 PTS, 51.2% FG, 10.1 REB, 2.1 AST, 16.8 PER in 2019-2020) in Free Agency on a two-year/$18.9 million contract, with the hopes that his 6-9, 254 lbs frame will give the Celtics some more flexibility against larger opponents. With that said, the 29-year old is listed as Day-to-Day and is currently uncertain if he will be available for tonight’s affair with the Bucks. Boston also said goodbye to a personal favorite of Stevens, as (Swingman) Gordon Hayward (17.5 PTS, 50.0% FG, 38.3% 3FG, 6.7 REB, 4.1 AST, 18.1 PER in 2019-2020) turned down his Player Option and left the franchise in Free Agency. Of course, the former All-Star had enjoyed far from the smoothest of tenures since after arriving back in 2017, immediately suffering a catastrophic ankle injury that ended his debut campaign after just one game, with ensuing injuries robbing him of ever truly reaching his potential under the same man who coached him in college at Butler. As if replacing his production and versatility wasn’t hard enough, Stevens will be without the services of the aforementioned Walker until at some point in January, following an Offseason procedure on his troublesome left knee, which he needed drained during the COVID lockdown back in the Spring. It’ll be interesting to see if Tatum can continue his meteoric rise to superstardom, for it appears that he’ll have every opportunity to do so in the early stages of the schedule. It was indeed a case of exponential growth for the 22-year old, who from year two to year three posted career-highs in a slew of categories, including minutes (34.3), points (23.4), rebounds (7.0), assists (3.0), steals (1.4), blocks (0.9), and PER (20.4).