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Are the Bucks really the biggest threat to the Celtics in the East?

A definitive win on Christmas Day puts the postseason in focus.

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Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images

BOSTON — Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t lean on Khris Middleton’s absence for a Christmas Day blowout to the Celtics. Boston’s win looked like the one they pulled off in Game 7 over seven months earlier, except Giannis played even more passive, the Bucks’ defense let Jayson Tatum score from multiple spots on the floor and their transition game faltered.

One day later, the Nets, who Kevin Durant admitted didn’t play on Christmas because of his offseason trade request, won their ninth straight game over a Cavaliers team that’s spent December ahead of Milwaukee in net rating and as the league’s top defense. The 76ers reached eight straight wins on Christmas afternoon before the Celtics played. Four teams now stand in front of the Bucks in terms of net rating, and all might boast better teams.

“We haven’t grown,” Antetokounmpo told The Athletic. “We lost the game. So, we gotta still work on it. We’re not good at it. Gotta go back, work on it, watch the tape. Try to improve, try to figure out ways to score the ball, try to be effective against them, try to figure out ways to play against the switch.”

There’s no doubt Milwaukee would have an answer for the Celtics in a seven-game series, but the question is whether they’d have enough to reach four wins. Boston’s defensive switching forced Antetokounmpo to shoot fourteen jump shots outside of the paint, where he only attempted eight field goals. That’s the opposite of his normal shot distribution, and emblematic of the kind of pressure Boston could generate on Giannis across the paint.

Antetokounmpo’s numbers are down this season, needing to take 21.5 shots per game at a 53.3% efficiency, his worst since 2017-18. His three-point shooting (25.3%) reached its lowest point since 2014-15 after finishing 1-for-5 on Christmas, and his 64.5% mark at the free throw line is the second worst of his career, leading to less makes on more attempts. His assists per game (5.2) fell to the lowest mark since 2015-16 next to a career high in turnovers (3.6).

“I feel like I’ve done a better job defending him … he’s going to improve, because he’s always going to work on his game … for me, it’s trying to do the same, continue to get better at cutting him off, not letting him get to spots and affecting the shots that he takes,” Grant Williams said. “It’s my favorite matchup in the league, honestly. Playing against him, he’s the ultimate competitor.”

Whatever individual regression Giannis saw to start this year, his gravity remains enormous and crowds of Celtics met him in the lane, leaving Grayson Allen and others to help. The two-time MVP will win at least one game with his greatness alone; the team’s effectiveness is shockingly waning to a greater degree.

They’re a negative net rating team in December (-0.8) in 15 games, with the 22nd-ranked offense and 10th-ranked defense this month. They score 94.3 points per 100 plays in the half court, worse than the Lakers, Wizards, Heat and hapless Hawks offenses. The Bucks’ transition offense — which helped them generate the fifth most efficient offense in the league one year ago — now ranks 27th in points added per 100 possessions.

Tatum also scored 41 points with limited resistance, 20 coming in the third quarter after a difficult series against Milwaukee’s drop in May. The Bucks needed to switch more often to cover the Celtics’ shooting, as they have for much of this season and Boston shot 27-for-37 in the paint and 19-for-39 from three. They also generated 25 free throw attempts. From an intangible standpoint, Jaylen Brown scuffled with Giannis and didn’t back down post-game.

“I thought I was playing pretty physical defense, nothing dirty, seemed like it was a clean play,” Brown said. “Maybe he was a little frustrated, he got up and threw an elbow at me for whatever reason. It was a lot of talking and chirping in-between, but it’s a difference between trying to be a tough guy and then letting your opponent know that I’m not backing down. I’m not afraid of any challenge or any matchup ... I was just letting him know that.”

The Nets didn’t fear the 2021 champs either, rolling through them, 118-100, forcing seven Antetokounmpo turnovers and receiving six double-figure scoring efforts led by Kevin Durant. Brooklyn’s star is averaging 30.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 5.3 APG and 1.5 BPG on 56.3% shooting, as strong as he’s ever played in his career. Kyrie Irving is scoring 25.6 PPG on 50.7% FG since his suspension and the Nic Claxton and Ben Simmons combination is starting to show some promise.

They posted a +24.6 net rating to start this month together, raising their average per 100 possessions to +4.8 for the season. Simmons missed the Celtics’ 103-92 win over Brooklyn earlier this month and TJ Warren, averaging 9.5 PPG on 53.6% shooting, was just getting his feet under him that night in his second game back.

The Nets’ offense is No. 1 this month, posting 120.3 points per 100 possessions in line with the Celtics’ best play this month, winning 11-of-12. Their defense, still 12th this month, leaves some to be desired, but is way better than it was under Steve Nash — 29th through seven games to start the season.

The Cavaliers beat the Bucks too this week, albeit while Middleton sat. They’re the best defense in the league by nearly one point per 100 possessions for the season over Philadelphia, and shut down Holiday while Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland scored 59 points. Jarrett Allen shot 8-for-10 inside. They’ve also beat the Celtics handily twice, utilizing the size between Allen and Evan Mobley to disrupt Boston’s drive-and-kick game.

That’s where the 76ers could potentially challenge the Celtics again too when they meet again in February. Joel Embiid is averaging 35.2 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.5 SPG and 1.5 BPG on 54.4% shooting since returning from his foot sprain. Tyrese Maxey’s injury allowed them to find some defensive cohesion, but they’ll now need to reintegrate him after he returned on Thursday. Due to major trades in recent years, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Milwaukee are all limited in the draft capital they can deal to improve their weaknesses.

Joe Mazzulla isn’t concerned about Boston’s, size disadvantage against bigger teams, for now. He cleverly utilized Blake Griffin on Christmas due to his experience guarding Giannis to positive effect. Orlando hurt Boston by packing the paint, but the Celtics still averaged 118 points against Cleveland. Dropping 139 points on the league’s No. 5 defense in Milwaukee is a feather in their cap and perhaps a sign that a diverse array of opponent styles could challenge, but not surpass them in the East.

“I thought we struggled with (size) earlier (in the season),” Mazzulla said. “We held (Orlando) to three offensive rebounds in the first 47 minutes of (Sunday’s) game and then two of their guards got a rebound, so it really wasn’t their size ... I think we’ve learned how to play against a bunch of different styles, I think it’s more about just executing in certain situations. I said in the Orlando game, I thought we did a lot of great things from a habitual standpoint, I just thought in a close game, in the last minute, those offensive rebounds from Fultz are the ones that kill you. We’ve just got to get better in those close game moments.”

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