Two evenly matched teams, whose roster construction perfectly counters the other, will now pit their wits against each other in what has become a battle for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Sitting 2.5 games behind Milwaukee, Boston needs to win if they want to keep their chance of regaining their top spot, while a loss would all but ensure the Celtics finished second in the East for two consecutive seasons.
Neither the Bucks nor the Celtics are the same teams we saw last season, as their approaches have evolved and matured as they look to raise another championship banner. With that being said, here are three things to watch when the two powerhouses collide on Thursday.
Attacking Brook Lopez
The best way to attack a non-athletic rim protector is by pulling them onto the perimeter, putting them in action, and then taking them off the dribble. However, there is also the option of turning to the three-point line to force the defender into spots they don’t want to be in.
By ensuring Lopez is tasked with guarding Al Horford, the Celtics can drag him out of his comfort zone and look to create scoring opportunities in the gaps behind him — but only if they’re committed to multiple driving actions before swinging the rock to the open man. Milwaukee ranks 2nd in the NBA for defensive rating, yet, any defense can be manipulated if you commit to getting them in rotation over and over again.
With so many talented ball-handlers, and a plethora of three-level scorers, the Celtics have all the tools required to hurt a robust defense, but it comes with a commitment to attacking teams how they did at the start of the season, except it will need Al Horford initiating play and being front and center in the team’s gameplan.
Watch out for Jrue Holiday
With the presence of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday is often overlooked by opposing fans when discussing the Bucks’ difference makers. Yet, make no mistake; Holiday is a genuine threat, especially this season, as he’s traded off some of his defensive responsibilities for a larger role on the offensive end.
Of course, Holiday’s increased usage on offense is in part due to Middleton’s absence for most of the season and his need to reacclimate himself to the physical task of playing NBA basketball. Still, Holiday is converting 38% of his threes and 69% of his attempts around the rim and has been steady in the mid-range too, knocking down 45% of his shots.
It’s only natural to focus on the damage Giannis can do to a team when he’s on the court, but overlooking Holiday, or allowing him to thrive in a secondary scoring role, will be bad news for the Celtics. Oh, and it’s not like he isn’t still an elite defender who can turn up the intensity whenever he wants to — look out for this if the game is close heading into the fourth quarter.
Limiting transition opportunities
There’s an old adage in basketball that the best way to avoid transition plays is to make your shots, and while that’s true, it’s not exactly easy to execute over an entire season. Just ask Jayson Tatum, who has struggled for consistency since cooking in the All-Star game. However, Boston’s problems go deeper than Tatum’s struggles from deep.
Since the Brad Stevens era, one thing has carried over: when shots are falling, the Celtics let it affect the rest of their game. Heads drop, shoulders slump, and opposing teams grow in confidence as they push the pace off of every rebound. Against Giannis, failure to get back and build out to the ball is borderline criminal; he will chip away at you until you crumble if you let him.
Moving onto the next play, staying focused, and honing in on what has been a recent weakness for the Celtics will be integral if they want to limit Milwaukee’s chances at easy points, especially if Giannis decides that he wants to bully his way down the court and into countless layup opportunities.
The Celtics have typically played up and down to their competition this season, so it’s only fair to expect them to come into Thursday’s game full of energy and determination. However, there is an element of realism here; these are two elite rosters with the same aspiration and similar talent levels.
Whenever two teams of this caliber face-off, games are often won and lost by the slimmest of margins. So, if the Celtics go out there, leave it all on the court, and fall short, that isn’t the end of the world. A playoff series is seven games, not one, although a win would definitely be nice.