7:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Bucks -6, Over/Under: 235
In the wake of the NBA Trade Deadline, eastern contenders stand poised for a postseason run as the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks clash for the second time in three days from Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For the Celtics (21-23, 8th in Eastern Conference), the need to acquire reinforcements was mandatory as they continued to slide down the pecking order in the East, and even more so when you consider their circumstances. Back in the (abridged) offseason, Boston let (former Swingman) Gordon Hayward walk via a Sign & Trade and created a massive Trade Exception (worth over $23 million) as a result, foreshadowing their absorbing of any large salary at some point before yesterday’s deadline. Keep in mind that this was not something that could roll over into the following offseason, for (General Manager) Danny Ainge needed to use it THIS season, lest it be yet another wasted bargaining chip. Of course, the first half of the campaign could largely have been described as missing a few pieces, for (Head Coach) Brad Stevens rarely had a full complement of players to utilize. Hayward’s absence aside, (All-Star Point Guard) Kemba Walker (17.9 PTS, 39.5% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 4.6 AST, 1.2 STL, 16.0 PER) missed the first eleven games of the schedule following offseason knee surgery, and has struggled to find his previous form in the time that has followed, while (fellow All-Star) Jayson Tatum (24.8 PTS, 44.5% FG, 37.6% 3FG, 6.8 REB, 4.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 19.9 PER) missed five games with COVID-19 in late January and has openly lamented the virus’ effects on his conditioning months afterward. And then (defensive lynchpin) Marcus Smart (12.7 PTS, 39.0% FG, 32.4% 3FG, 2.8 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.5 STL, 14.2 PER) suffered a calf injury that went on to sideline him for the next eighteen contests, with other injuries to various members of the rotation decimating the club’s overall depth even further. Losers of six out of eight games since the All-Star Break, this is a team that above all else needed another playmaker to help facilitate the offense, which was a glaring weakness when Smart was out of action; sure, Tatum and (first time All-Star) Jaylen Brown (24.7 PTS, 48.9% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 5.7 REB, 3.9 AST, 1.2 STL, 20.6 PER) are capable of high-scoring outbursts, but there simply hasn’t been enough ball-movement in Beantown, with the Celtics averaging a disappointing 22.9 assists a night (25th Overall). So is it any wonder that Boston had been linked with just about every available Guard over the last few months? Armed with that Trade Exception along with a number of draft picks, few contenders in the East had the cache to pull of a significant trade, which is why there one of the few teams consistently linked with Houston’s Victor Oladipo (who has since been traded to the Miami Heat). Instead, Ainge ended up pulling the trigger on a deal to acquire (veteran Swingman) Evan Fournier (19.7 PTS, 46.1% FG, 38.8% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.0 STL, 18.3 PER) from the Orlando Magic in exchange for a pair of Second Round Picks, with the intention of bringing some fluidity back to the attack. The 28-year old French international had spent the previous seven seasons in relative obscurity in Central Florida, though really fits the type of profile that Ainge and Stevens sought; at 6’7″, Fournier can play either Guard position or Small Forward, with the kind of length that will allow him to switch defensively (which is KEY when talking about the Celtics), but his skills on the offensive end are why he was acquired, with solid playmaking skills complemented by a personal-best 19.7 points per game and a career 37.6% shooter from the perimeter to boot. Also, with Fournier in the final year of his contract, they keep him without suffering any salary cap penalties due to obtaining his Bird Rights, or can potentially create some significant cap space by letting him walk as an Unrestricted Free Agent. Needless to say, they now have some real options. On another note, the Celtics also flipped (Center) Daniel Theis (9.5 PTS, 55.2% FG, 34.7% 3FG, 5.2 REB, 1.6 AST, 1.0 BLK, 15.3 PER) in a three-way deal with the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards for (young Center) Mo Wagner (7.1 PTS, 50.8% FG, 31.0% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.9 STL, 15.5 PER), offering an interesting prospect for the future. Keep an eye on this team moving forward in regards to the Buyout Market, for there is still a need for some size; (Veteran Forward) Tristan Thompson (7.9 PTS, 53.4% FG, 8.4 REB, 1.0 AST, 15.7 PER) was added in the offseason and hasn’t been all that effective, while Theis had struggled greatly against larger bigs, with Boston as a whole having a difficult time securing the glass on the defensive end (77.3% defensive rebounding percentage) and sealing off the paint, yielding 53.4% shooting on two-point field goals. At the moment, Thompson is sidelined due to the league’s Health and Safety Protocols, making them even smaller heading into this rematch with the Bucks, who are coincidentally one of the Association’s largest units.
“Lopez is playing off Theis and just protecting any cut to the rim, so Theis was the best option there. He got a great look. He stepped in and shot it with authority, back-rimmed it, looked good.”Brad Stevens on Daniel Theis attempting the final shot in Wednesday’s narrow 121-119 defeat at Milwaukee, in which the Celtics rallied back from a 25-point deficit midway through the Third Quarter.
When we last saw the Celtics, they dropped their sixth game in eight outings, though they very nearly stunned the Milwaukee Bucks in a 121-119 affair that for long stretches appeared to be well out of hand. Trailing by as many as twenty-five points midway through the Third Quarter, the visitors rallied back over the final eighteen minutes of play cutting the deficit to a mere two points in the waning moments of the contest. Three-point shooting and points off turnovers were the biggest factors in their rally, with Boston outscoring the hosts by a dozen points form beyond the arc in the final frame (6-of-12), while turning sixteen turnovers into twenty-two points, with many of those coming in transition where they held a commanding 26-12 advantage. As the visiting side cut it to two via Brown’s triple with 1:32 remaining, Theis drew a charging foul on Giannis Antetokounmpo (more on him in a bit) on the ensuring possession. From there, Stevens’ troops had multiple opportunities to tie or take the lead, with Smart missing a three and Walker seeing his lay-up blocked before the German international attempted a game-winning three that ultimately bounced harmlessly off the rim as time expired. In the end, the Celtics, who only played eight of their number, shot 47.9% from the field, including 19-of-47 from downtown (40.4%), with twenty-four assists in comparison to just a dozen turnovers, with six different players scoring in double-figures. Brown led the way with twenty-four on an efficient 10-of-16 shooting (62.5%), including 4-of-7 from three (57.1%), along with ten rebounds and a pair of dimes, while Walker turned in one of his better performances of the campaign in totaling twenty-three points on 9-of-18 shooting (50.0%), including 5-of-9 from long range (55.6%), with six assists and three steals. Tatum on the other hand struggled throughout the night, totaling eighteen points on just 7-of-19 shooting (36.8%), including 1-of-6 from the perimeter (16.7%), though did contribute in other areas with eight rebounds, five assists, and a pair of blocks. Furthermore, (veteran Point Guard) Jeff Teague (6.9 PTS, 41.5% FG, 46.4% 3FG, 1.7 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 11.6 PER), who has largely been an afterthought after signing with the club in the offseason, added fifteen points off the Bench. This matchup was reminiscent of their previous meeting this season, which also came down to the wire, as Tatum banked in a three-pointer in the final seconds before Antetokounmpo missed a potential game-tying free-throw in a thrilling 122-121 affair back on Opening Night. The loss dropped Boston to Eighth in the East, trailing the Hawks by one game in the standings as they have found themselves squarely in the mix for the Play-In Tournament, which they clearly DON’T want to be.
Meanwhile, as their opponent tonight continues to slide down the standings, the Bucks (29-14, 2nd in Eastern Conference) are trending upward in a major way, winning thirteen of their last fourteen outings, including seven straight since the All-Star Break. Of course, this is what we’ve come to expect from a team that has owned the highest winning percentage in the NBA over the past two seasons (.732), entering each of the last two Playoffs as the East’s No. One Seed. However, the issue for Milwaukee has been that they’ve underachieved in the postseason thus far; (Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer’s charges capitulated to the eventual NBA Champion, Toronto Raptors, after winning the first two games of the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, before falling to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Semifinals from the Bubble in Orlando last Fall. As a result, they’ve been branded as frontrunners, a regular season team, and paper giants, among other questionable monikers, though they hope to dispel all of those labels come this May. The difference between this season and it’s predecessors though is that there appears to be considerably more competition at the top of the East, what with the 76ers maintaining a vice-like grip on the top seed while the new-look Nets have yet to unlock their true potential. And it’s with that said that the Bucks hope that they’ve made the necessary changes to get over the proverbial hump. In the offseason they moved mountains in order to acquire the services of (veteran Point Guard) Jrue Holiday (15.8 PTS, 48.8% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 5.1 AST, 1.8 STL, 18.6 PER) in an attempt to upgrade a position that had repeatedly failed them in the postseason, dealing for him as part of a massive four-team trade with the Pelicans, Thunder, and Nuggets; the 30-year old has thus far proven to be a much better fit for Budenholzer’s system than the man he has replaced (Eric Bledsoe), shooting a solid 37.5% from the perimeter, while bringing more fluidity to the offense (5.1 assists). Last week they also added (veteran Forward) P.J. Tucker (4.1 PTS, 36.3% FG, 31.1% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 1.3 AST 0.8 STL, 5.6 PER) to the mix in exchange for D.J Augustin, D.J. Wilson, and a number of Draft Picks in a deal with Rockets; the 35-year old clearly wanted out of Houston, and his experience, perimeter shooting, and ability to guard much larger players in the paint should prove valuable to Milwaukee come the Playoffs. With that said, at the end of the day the pressure to lead this franchise forward will be squarely on the shoulders of (two-time reigning MVP) Giannis Antetokounmpo (28.6 PTS, 55.9% FG, 29.9% 3FG, 11.6 REB, 6.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.3 BLK, 28.8 PER), who during the (truncated) offseason committed his long-term future with the Bucks, putting pen to paper on a massive five-year/$228 million super max contract extension, the richest such deal in NBA history. Believe it or not, there is a case being made for the Greek international to be the favorite for what would be a historic THIRD consecutive MVP award, potentially making him just the fourth play ever to earn that distinction; the only players to have done so are Bill Russell (1960-1963), Wilt Chamberlain (1965-1968), and Larry Bird (1983-1986), with all three Hall-of-Famers winning an NBA title at some point during those reigns, which is RARE company indeed. And this brings us back to the championship void in his trophy case. That vacant space on his finger has been the sticking point in any discussion regarding someone who has otherwise been the most outstanding player in the Association for two years running. While he has yet to hit the money ball with any regulation (29.9% 3FG), Antetokounmpo has developed into a much more playmaking threat, dishing out a career-high 6.4 assists this season. It should come as no surprise that he’s been at the center of their recent successful stretch over the last fourteen games, averaging 30.0 points on 56.5% shooting, while knocking down a very encouraging 34.8% from downtown and 76.8% from the free-throw line, along with 12.0 rebounds and 7.5 assists. If this proves to be sustainable rather than just a simple hot streak, then you can go ahead and hand the Greek Freak the MVP once again, for there will literally be nothing that can stop him.
“We were a little bit fortunate. Theis got clean for a free look. We were fortunate he didn’t make it.”Mike Budenholzer on the last possession of Milwaukee’s 121-119 victory over the Celtics last night despite nearly relinquishing a sizable 25-point lead midway through the Third Quarter on Wednesday night.
When we last saw the Bucks, they successfully ran their winning streak to eight games as they managed to hold onto a narrow 121-119 victory over the Celtics in an affair that really had no business being that close. As we detailed earlier, the hosts built a commanding 25-point lead midway through the Third Quarter, shooting 50.0% from the field, including 10-of-19 from beyond the arc (52.6%) in the First Half, outrebounding them 27-19 along the way. However, Boston would eventually catch fire from the perimeter and cut the deficit to just two points with under two minutes left in regulation. With that said, Milwaukee was forced to rely upon their defense, which came up HUGE as they thwarted the visitors on four consecutive attempts in the waning moments of the contest; after the aforementioned Smart clanked a three-pointer, (young Swingman) Donte DiVincenzo (10.7 PTS, 42.7% FG, 38.7% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 3.0 AST, 1.1 STL, 13.4 PER) swatted away a layup from Walker with thirty-five seconds left to play, followed immediately by another block courtesy of of (veteran Center) Brook Lopez (11.5 PTS, 47.2% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 0.7 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.4 BLK, 14.0 PER) on Smart’s attempted layup with two seconds on the clock. Theis would get the opportunity to play hero, though his potential game-winner bounced harmlessly off the rim, sealing the victory for the home side. In the end, Budenholzer’s troops shot a stellar 50.0% from the floor, including 17-of-37 from downtown (45.9%), and 14-of-20 from the charity stripe (70.0%), though were fairly sloppy with the basketball in committing nearly as many turnovers (16) as assists (19). A few nights after Antetokounmpo sat out his team’s 140-113 victory over the Indiana Pacers with a sore left knee, the reigning MVP turned a rather subdued performance with totals of thirteen points on 4-of-11 shooting (36.4%), eight rebounds and seven assists. However, the supporting cast proved enough to get the win, as (sharpshooting Forward) Khris Middleton (20.6 PTS, 49.0% FG, 43.0% 3FG, 6.2 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.7 PER) led the way with a game-high twenty-seven points on 11-of-20 shooting (55.0%), thirteen rebounds, and four assists, while DiVincenzo and Lopez added seventeen points apiece, with the former draining five of his six threes (83.3%). (Young Forward) Bobby Portis () also made quite the impact off the Bench, with the -year old chipping in with twenty-one points on 7-of-10 shooting (70.0%), including 4-of-6 from three (66.7%). Tucker, who sprained his left ankle in just his second game with the club against Indiana, contributed with three points and rebounds apiece in nineteen minutes of action. Sitting square with the Nets for Second in the standings and trailing the Sizers by 1.5 games for First, Milwaukee is making quite the statement that they should retain top-billing in the East, which should make for quite the finish over these next two months of action.