It all comes down to this: Game 7. The Celtics and Bucks have battled through 6 very tough and very hard fought games. The Bucks won the first game convincingly 101-89 in Boston to steal home court from the Celtics. The Celtics then returned the favor and won Game 2 on their home court 109-86. When the series shifted to Milwaukee for Game 3, the Bucks won a very close 103-101 game that was marred by some questionable calls down the stretch. In Game 4, the Celtics came back from 11 down in the 3rd quarter and 7 down entering the 4th quarter to win 116-108. The Celtics gave up a 14 point lead in the 4th quarter as they fell apart down the stretch and lost 110-107.
The Celtics fought hard at the end of the regular season to win their final game and grab the 2nd seed. The Bucks and 76ers, on the other hand, rested their players and did their very best to lose their last game in order to avoid having to play the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. The Celtics made it clear that they weren’t going to avoid the Nets or anyone. The end result is that the Celtics have home court advantage in Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
So far in this series, however, home court hasn’t meant all that much. The road team has won 4 of the 6 games in the series so far. The Bucks won Games 1 and 5 in Boston while the Celtics won Games 4 and 6 in Milwaukee. But that is all behind them now as the two teams square off in Game 7 at the TD Garden, where the atmosphere should be electric in support of the Celtics. History would be on the side of the home team 76.8% of home teams win Game 7.
The Celtics core has had some experience in Game 7’s over their tenure with the Celtics. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart were on the team that beat the Wizards in 2017. They also were on the team that beat the Bucks in Game 7 in 2018. They were also on the team that beat the Raptors in Game 7 in the Bubble in 2020. Their lone loss came in the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals against LeBron’s Cavaliers. The Bucks have the most recent experience in Game 7 with their win over the Nets in Game 7 in the 2nd round last year on their way to the title.
Robert Williams has missed the last 3 games after suffering a bone bruise in his surgically repaired knee. The Celtics won 2 of those games and lost one by 3 points. He is once again listed as questionable for this game and his status is expected to be a game time decision. After hopefully including him in the starting lineup the last two games, I’m expecting Grant Williams to once again get the start in his place. Sam Hauser is out with a shoulder injury. The Bucks have listed Khris Middleton as out for this game. He has missed the entire series so far.
Probable Celtics Starters
Sam Hauser (shoulder) out
Robert Williams III (knee) questionable
Probable Bucks Starters
Bobby Portis, Jr
Khris Middleton (knee) out
Grant Williams vs Giannis Antetokounmpo
As in the other 6 games, the matchup with Giannis Antetokounmpo is the key matchup. So far in the series, Giannis is averaging 38.3 points, 13.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.3 blocks. In the first 4 games, his scoring was inefficient, shooting 43.8% from the field and 12.5% from beyond the arc. In the last 2 games, he shot 52.6% from the field and 50% from beyond the arc. The Celtics need to limit switching Brown and Tatum on him on defense. Grant Williams and Al Horford should see the most time guarding him in order to limit his efficiency once again.
Marcus Smart vs Jrue Holiday
Jrue Holiday is averaging 21.0 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.5 steals per game for the series. He is shooting 35.3% from the field and 34% from beyond the arc. The Celtics need to play Holiday tightly on defense to limit his production since he is the biggest threat for the Bucks other than Antetokounmpo. Marcus Smart has played very well for the Celtics in the 6 games so far, other than the last couple minutes of Game 5. I expect him to have another strong game in this one on both ends of the court.
Rest of the Celtics vs Rest of the Bucks
So far, the Bucks have been depending on Giannis to carry the team and for the most part he has done that. He hasn’t gotten much help from the rest of the team. Giannis is #2 in scoring at 38.3 points per game. Jrue Holiday is 19th with 21.0 points per game. Then the third highest scorer is Pat Connaughton at #58 with just 11.7 points per game and Bobby Portis at #76 with 9.8 points per game. The Celtics have two players in the top 15 with Tatum at 28.3 points per game and Jaylen Brown at 22.5 points per game. Marcus Smart is #40 with 14.6 points per game and Al Horford at 14.2 points per game. They also have Derrick White and Grant Williams who can be streaky but who can score. This may come down to which supporting cast steps up on both offense and defense.
Keys to the Game
Defense - Defense is always the biggest key to winning, and especially more so in the playoffs and in this series. Defense really does win championships. So far, this series has been a defensive battle from both teams and the series will be won on the defensive end in this game. The Celtics must work harder than the Bucks on defense and keep their focus on the defensive end so as not to allow any easy baskets for the Bucks. They especially need to keep the Bucks from getting out in transition as they struggle to find their offense in the half court. The Celtics can’t afford defensive lapses or missed assignments in this game. They have to defend the paint as well as doing a better job of defending them on the perimeter. Defending the perimeter is important as the Bucks are shooting 32.3% from beyond the arc in their wins but just 25.7% on threes in their losses. The Bucks have been playing very tough defense and the Celtics have to play harder than them on the defensive end if they hope to win this game.
Rebound - Next to defense, rebounding is always a big key to winning. Rebounding takes effort and when the Celtics put out extra effort to win the rebounding battle, that effort usually continues to other areas of the game. On the other hand, when they don’t make an extra effort on the boards, it also continues to other areas of the game. In the Bucks wins, they out rebounded the Celtics by 8.3 rebounds per game. The Celtics must out work the Bucks on the boards and especially on the offensive end. The Bucks have more size and so the Celtics have to give more effort if they want to win the battle of the boards.
Play as a Team - When the Celtics move the ball and trust each other, they are tough to beat. But when they lapse into hero ball and try to do too much individually, they struggle. The Celtics have to move the ball and they have to move without the ball and they need to trust each other. They have to look for the best shots and not take quick shots with little ball movement. When the Celtics have high assist numbers, they usually win. It may be tempting for Jayson Tatum to try to take over again but if his shots aren’t falling, he needs to go to the basket and he needs to find his open teammates.
Stay Focused and Composed - Players, especially Jayson Tatum, have spent too much time complaining to the refs about calls and that has cost the Celtics when they didn’t get back on defense and the Bucks scored. The Celtics have to play through the bad calls that are inevitably coming. They have to play hard and play together and not allow the pressure or the stress to take them out of their game. They have to make careful passes and they have to focus on their ball handling so as not to turn the ball over. If they play like they are capable of and stay focused and composed, they will win this game. It is theirs to win or lose.
No Let Up - The Celtics have to come out strong and be aggressive right from the start. They have to give maximum effort and focus right from the opening tip and they have to keep that focus and effort right up until the final buzzer. They especially need to come out after the half focused and ready to take control of the game in the third quarter and not allow the Bucks to gain any momentum. They can’t allow the Bucks to play harder than them or to be more aggressive and they can’t lose focus and let up for any length of time in the game.
Home Court - The Celtics played hard to finish the season to claim home court in the first and second rounds. They have lost 2 games at home so far in this series but this is Game 7. They need to make getting home court work for them in this game. No team has won 2 games in a row in this series and hopefully home court will be the difference in this game. They should get a boost from a very rowdy and supportive home crowd. Hopefully, the Bucks will struggle with the distractions of travel, playing in an unfamiliar arena and in front of a hostile crowd. The Celtics need to protect their home court and win Game 7 in front of their fans.
Coaching - Coaching is still an X-Factor in this game. There will once again be adjustments on both sides going into the game and during the game. Will Ime once again make the right adjustments after the loss in Game 5? Will Budenholzer come up with a new wrinkle that the Celtics can’t match? Time outs, rotations, challenges, and coaching strategy will all come into play in this game to determine which team will win. Which coach will make the right moves for their team to win?
Officiating - The officiating can always be an x-factor and maybe more so in the playoffs than in the regular season. Some referees call the game tight and others let them play. Some favor the home team and others call it evenly. Some refs just seem to have an agenda that doesn’t fit the play on the court. And sometimes, like in Game 3, the refs are simply atrocious. Giannis seems to always get more than his share of calls as he plows through players on his way to the hoop, leaving bodies in his wake. He shot 68 free throws through 6 games, more than any player on either team. The Celtics have to play through however the refs call the game, whether it is tight or they let them play or they make terrible calls. The Celtics can’t allow bad calls or no calls to take away their focus on the game.
According to our friends at DraftKings, the Celtics are 5-point favorites for Game 7. While homecourt advantage has mattered very little in this physical series — both teams have won twice on the road — it’s easy to see why bettors are bullish on Boston’s chances to win the series. Over the last two games, the Celtics have built 14-point leads in the fourth quarters, one they squandered away at TD Garden in Game 5 and another Jayson Tatum nearly solely maintained in an elimination game in Milwaukee.
Game 7 could come down to the superstars. Boston has been content letting Giannis Antetokounmpo get his in the face of single coverage primarily from Al Horford, Grant Williams, and most recently, Marcus Smart; he’s still putting up monster scoring numbers, but they’ve collectively been able to limit his ability to get his teammates involved and forced thirteen turnovers over the last two games.
Tatum had The Tatum Game in Game 6 and Milwaukee sounds determined to not let that happen again. That could mean more playmaking for the Celtics All-Star. For what it’s worth, Boston is 11-2 when Tatum has seven or more assists in a game. He had eight in Game 2 against the Bucks and eight and ten in both home games against the Nets.
All odds are accurate at the time and date of publishing.