3:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Celtics -3, Over/Under: 213.0
Eastern heavyweights continue their slugfest, as the reigning NBA Champion, Milwaukee Bucks, look to enjoy some home cooking and break the deadlock as they welcome the Boston Celtics to Fiserv Forum for Game Three of this Eastern Conference Semifinal from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since the turn of the calendar to 2022, there hasn’t been a better team in the National Basketball Association than the Celtics (51-31, 2nd in Eastern Conference), going 34-12 since January 2nd, and have since carried that momentum with them into the playoffs. With that said, this was far from smooth ride to get to this point for Boston, who underwent a soft reboot of sorts last summer; (longtime Basketball Czar) Danny Ainge stepped down from his post, replaced by (Head Coach) Brad Stevens, who ascended into his vacant seat within the organization’s hierarchy, eventually tabbing Ime Udoka to supplant his seat on the bench. While the hire was applauded around the league, Udoka’s tenure did not start smoothly; the Celtics were a middling 17-19 by the end of the December, due in large part to an unsettled rotation, as many of the new pieces that were imported over the summer failed to find their footing under the new regime. And it’s with that said that the likes of Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson were quickly shipped out of Beantown in favor of (veteran Guard) Derrick White (11.0 PTS, 40.9% FG, 30.6% 3FG, 85.3% FT, 3.4 REB, 3.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 12.9 PER) and the return of (Backup Center) Daniel Theis (7.9 PTS, 59.8% FG, 35.7% 3FG, 68.8% FT, 4.7 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.7 BLK, 17.0 PER), with both proving to be a seamless for fit in Udoka’s system. Furthermore, the return of (All-Star Forward) Al Horford (10.2 PTS, 46.7% FG, 33.6% 3FG, 84.2% FT, 7.7 REB, 3.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.3 BLK, 16.7 PER) has been nothing short of a boon for the Celtics, with his intelligence and positioning on both ends of the hardwood paying rich dividends, with the return of these two wise men helping to facilitate the growth of (emerging Center) Robert Williams (10.0 PTS, 73.6% FG, 72.2% FT, 9.6 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.9 STL, 2.2 BLK, 22.1 PER), who has flourished this season, posting career-highs in a slew of categories including points (10.0), field goal percentage (73.6%), rebounds (9.6), assists (2.0), steals (0.9), blocks (2.2), and PER (22.1). Combined with the presence of (newly minted Defensive Player of the Year) Marcus Smart (21.1 PTS, 41.8% FG, 33.1% 3FG, 79.3% FT, 3.8 REB, 5.9 AST, 1.7 STL, 13.6 PER), this infusion of size, length, and smarts has morphed Boston into a much larger team than they were over the last two years, while also letting them switch defensively, which has been the biggest component of their upward turn. With that said, it’s also helped immensely that their dynamic duo of All-Star Swingmen, Jayson Tatum (26.9 PTS, 45.3% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 85.3% FT, 8.0 REB, 4.4 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.6 BLK, 21.8 PER) and Jaylen Brown (23.6 PTS, 47.3% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 75.8% FT, 6.1 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.9 PER), have continued to ascend higher and higher. Though the former has certainly been among the most impressive players in the NBA this season and was arguably the top performer of the first round in which he utterly eviscerated the Nets in a sweep, the latter really made his presence felt in Tuesday night’s Game Two, a 109-86 romp which saw the Celtics square this series away at one game apiece. After totaling a meager twelve points on just 4-of-13 shooting (30.8%) and a team-high SEVEN turnovers in Game One, Brown turned the tables and TORCHED the visitors for thirty points on 11-of-18 shooting (61.1%), including 6-of-10 from beyond the arc (60.0%), along with six rebounds and assists apiece, and a pair of steals. In fact, the 25-year-old poured in SEVENTEEN points in the first quarter alone, highlighted by a putback slam over Giannis Antetokounmpo (more on him shortly), followed later by a perimeter dagger after pushing off Greyson Allen, who landed on his backside to the delight of the crowd. Tatum would add twenty-nine points on 10-of-20 shooting from the field (50.0%) and 5-of-10 from downtown (50.0%), along with three rebounds, eight assists, and three steals, while (backup Forward) Grant Williams (7.8 PTS, 47.5% FG, 41.1% 3FG, 90.5% FT, 3.6 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.7 BLK, 11.2 PER) erupted off the bench with twenty-one points on 7-of-14 shooting (50.0%), including 6-of-9 from three (66.7%). If you’re sensing a trend with the money ball, then you wouldn’t be wrong, for the biggest component of this victory was undoubtedly the host’s perimeter shooting; Boston drained a franchise playoff record TWENTY triples in Game Two, outscoring the Bucks by a staggering FIFTY-ONE points in that regard. As has been the case for years, the defending champs will allow their opposition to bomb away from the perimeter, with their defense geared towards shutting down the interior and driving lanes into the paint. If the C’s are going to get these open looks, then they simply MUST make them count, which was obviously the case in Game Two. Credit Udoka for cutting down on their mistakes, for after committing eighteen turnovers over the weekend, they trimmed that figure to sixteen, with Milwaukee only able to generate seventeen points as a result. Furthermore, the Celtics turned the tables on their opponent, harassing them into seventeen takeaways which led to twenty-four points for the home side. Moving forward, Udoka has stated that he expects the aforementioned Smart to return to the starting lineup today after sitting out Tuesday’s affair with a thigh bruise.
Meanwhile, though they were summarily run off the hardwood at TD Garden in Tuesday night’s debacle, don’t expect the Bucks (51-31, 3rd in Eastern Conference) to be down on themselves as the scene of this series shifts to East Wisconsin. After all, Milwaukee has certainly been here before; during last year’s postseason to claim their first Larry O’Brien trophy in fifty years, (Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer’s troops developed a habit of slowly growing into series, posting a dismal 1-5 record in Games One and Two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals and Finals, followed by the NBA Finals. With that said, if Boston is to be branded as the most impressive team from the First Round, then these deer aren’t far behind; the reigning champions absolutely embarrassed the Bulls by a combined FORTY points in Games Three through Five after splitting the first two outings at Fiserv Forum. Indeed, the Bucks were nothing short of ruthless in this matchup, averaging 109.8 points on 47.2% shooting from the field, including 38.0% from beyond the arc, all the while outscoring Chicago by a margin of 14.6 points per game. And that was without the services of (All-Star Swingman) Khris Middleton (20.1 PTS, 44.3% FG, 37.3% 3FG, 89.0% FT, 5.4 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 18.1 PER), who went down in Game Two, spraining his right MCL, and has already been pronounced out of action for this affair with the Celtics. Needless to say, this is a BIG blow to Milwaukee’s fortunes in this series and moving forward. The lithe 6′-7″ swingman is a perfect fit for Budenholzer’s system, possessing the size and length to shoot over smaller opponents while also proving adept at taking them into the paint, while his defense on the perimeter has long been one of his most underrated assets. With that said, Milwaukee didn’t appear to miss the 30-year-old at all in Game One’s 101-89 victory in Beantown, in which they relegated the hosts to their worst shooting performance in their storied postseason history. Relegated to a miserable 33.3% shooting overall, the Celtics were routinely stifled by the Bucks size and length, particularly in the paint where they could muster a scant twenty points. As we covered earlier, one of the biggest reasons that Boston has improved so much on the defensive is literally due to becoming a bigger team, with their advantage in that department allowing them to suffocate most opponents. However, that simply isn’t the case with the deer, who may be the biggest team in the NBA. And Budenholzer’s charges put that advantage to good use over the weekend, outscoring the home side in the paint (34-20), bullying them on the glass (54-48), and forcing them into eighteen turnovers, which they managed to parlay into TWENTY-SEVEN points. That was easily one of the biggest differences between the two sides, for the visitors were +21 in that department, which went hand-in-hand with the startling difference in fastbreak points (28-8). Simply put, no team in the Association is more lethal in transition, as the Bucks are always looking to push the ball downcourt following a rebound, steal, or block, where the likes of (two-time MVP) Giannis Antetokounmpo (29.9 PTS, 55.3% FG, 29.3% 3FG, 72.2% FT, 11.6 REB, 5.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 1.4 BLK, 32.1 PER) thrives. The Greek international may have only shot 9-of-25 from the field in Game One (36.0%), but he nonetheless finished with a triple-double, totaling twenty-four points, thirteen rebounds, and twelve assists, along with a pair of blocks. (All-Star Guard) Jrue Holiday (18.3 PTS, 50.1% FG, 41.1% 3FG, 76.1% FT, 4.5 REB, 6.8 AST, 1.6 STL,19.8 PER) added a team-high twenty-five points 8-of-20 shooting (40.0%), nine rebounds, five assists, and three steals, while (versatile Forward) Bobby Portis (14.6 PTS, 47.9% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 75.2% FT, 9.1 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.7 BLK, 17.7 PER) and (sparkplug Guard) Greyson Allen (11.1 PTS, 44.8% FG, 40.9% 3FG, 86.5% FT, 3.4 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.7 STL, 12.7 PER) chipped in with fifteen and eleven points respectively, with the former securing eleven rebounds, and the latter knocking down 3-of-6 triples (50.0%). With that said, as we now know, Game Two was a very different story than its predecessor for a variety of reasons. Though the Celtics caught fire from the perimeter, the Bucks couldn’t throw the ball into the ocean, netting just THREE of their eighteen attempts from beyond the arc (16.7%). This was two days after knocking down 12-of-34 three-pointers on Sunday (35.3%), translating into a 27-point decline from one contest to the next. Granted, Milwaukee continued to dominate in the paint (+30), but you just aren’t going to win very many games when you’re outscored by FIFTY-ONE points in any particular category. With the home side making so many triples, Antetokounmpo & Co lost their rebounding edge (-3) and thus could muster only SIX fastbreak points, while also looking particularly careless with the basketball, committing seventeen turnovers that were manufactured into twenty-four points going the other way. That’s a 21-point advantage from Game One shifting to 7-point disadvantage in Game Two, further painting the picture of how they were ultimately defeated by twenty-three points. Moving forward, Antetokounmpo shot marginally better from the field on Tuesday night (11-of-27) and still found a way to amass twenty-eight points, nine rebounds, and seven assists, though much more will be expected of the supporting cast, particularly Holiday and Allen, who combined for only twenty-four points 9-of-24 shooting (37.5%) and 1-of-7 from downtown (14.2%). However, (backup Swingman) Pat Connaughton (9.9 PTS, 45.8% FG, 39.5% 3FG, 83.3% FT, 4.2 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.9 STL, 13.4 PER) played well with thirteen points on an efficient 6-of-7 shooting (85.7%) off the bench, while Portis continued to impress with eleven points and eight rebounds. These guys MUST play a greater role moving forward as Middleton continues to rehab, for as this series progresses and the Celtics throw everything they can at Giannis, opportunities will present themselves. All they have to do is make the most of them.