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Halftime Hot Takes: an Eastern Conference Finals preview?

The top two teams in the East feel as though they’re charting a collision course with each other this postseason

Boston Celtics v Milwaukee Bucks

The Boston Celtics functionally handed the Milwaukee Bucks the conference’s top seed with their loss to the Washington Wizards on Tuesday night, but if either team felt tonight’s clash at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee has been made less meaningful as a result, it hasn’t shown in the play on the court. A fiery first quarter featured high-octane, back-and-forth scoring from the East’s top seeds, and though the Celtics accelerated ahead in the second, 41-21, over a Bucks team playing for the second time in two nights, it gave us a glimpse of what a playoff matchup between these two teams might look like.

It’s hard to draw up a more compelling capstone for the Eastern Conference playoff slate than a Celtics-Bucks conference finals. It’s a matchup that is long in both talent and history, having battled each other on several occasions during the tenure of Tatum, Brown, Antetokounmpo and Middleton. Both teams deploy enviable depth, with each bringing players off the bench with starting experience elsewhere in the league — including on the opposing teams, in the cases of Malcolm Brogdon and Jae Crowder.

Also on display have been the team’s missing pieces from their second round showdown last summer. Robert Williams III returned from a torn meniscus for the final two games of that series, but wasn’t quite 100% as he hustled back to contribute to the postseason push. He then missed the first half of this season as he recovered from a clean-up procedure on the same knee, and appears to be close to full speed as the playoffs loom. In the first half, he’s been everywhere: 6 points, 6 rebounds, a steal and a block from behind on Antetokounmpo.

Likewise, Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton is back and playing his best basketball in some time. He missed the entirety of last year’s second round series — a fact that Bucks fans will be quick to remind you about — and the first half of this season with a knee injury of his own. Tonight, he’s been effective, with 11 points in a first half that has seen Antetokounmpo struggle to find his scoring touch.

Of course, a series between these two teams will go as their stars do. It’s the Bostonian tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown against the man with a strong case for being the league’s best player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and his All-Star talented supporting duo, Jrue Holiday and Middleton. So far tonight, it’s been the former that have taken the edge, combining for 44 first-half points to lead the Celtics to a monstrous 28-point halftime lead, 75-47.

It’s foolhardy to take things for granted in the NBA Playoffs. At any moment, a team is one injury or one cold shooting night away from a complete reversal of fortune. The Celtics and Bucks are certainly not locks to face each other in the Eastern Conference Finals.

That said, taken in its entirety, these have been the two best teams of the 2022-23 NBA season. If they play to their lofty potential in the postseason, they could set the stage for an explosive showdown with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.

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