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Separated by just a half game in the East playoff standings, the Bucks and Celtics will close out their four-game season series less than two months after it started when the Bucks roll into Boston on Friday night.
The Bucks will play their 25th game of the season on Friday night and fourth against those pesky Celtics, meaning that 16% of all Bucks games will have featured the fabled Bostonians as opponents. That's a lot, but it's also the last time the Bucks and C's will have to put up with one another in the regular season.
Paul Pierce's 40 points (on 13/16 shooting!) led the Celtics to a much-needed home win over the Cavaliers on Wednesday, snapping a three game skid that saw Doc Rivers' bunch drop road games in Houston, San Antonio, and Chicago by the remarkably similar scorelines of 101-89, 103-88 and 100-89, respectively. Like the Bucks (13-11, 5th in the East), the Celtics have a barely-winning record (13-12, 8th) and a negative scoring differential for the season; in fact, Milwaukee and Boston are the only teams in the top eight in either conference who have been outscored overall. The bad news for the Bucks is that the Celtics have the best home record (9-4) of any East team outside of the Knicks and Heat, and the Celtics have won five in a row in Boston overall. Still, the Bucks' convincing win in Boston on opening night suggests it's hardly a stretch to think they could pull it off again.
Four factors. Rivers' Celtics have historically built their success around suffocating defenses, but they've been hit or miss in that department so far this year. Boston enters tonight's matchup 12th in defensive efficiency on the strength of good rebounding (7th DReb Rate) and they're also above-average at forcing turnovers (11th).
KG. Kevin Garnett just won't slow down, will he? Love him or hate him, Garnett's numbers have remained remarkably steady over the past five years. While his rebounding numbers are down somewhat for the second straight season, KG is scoring at his highest clip since his first season in Boston five years ago (15.4 ppg, 19.0/36 min) and his PER (20.2) and true shooting numbers (57.5%) remain excellent even at 36 years old. And he's doing it from everywhere on the court, too: Garnett converts a remarkable 79% at the rim and shoots better than 50% from every area inside the three-point arc, a stunning testament to the completeness of his offensive arsenal.
But Garnett's most remarkable impact is on the scoreboard. Despite starting at center since the second half of last season, Garnett's defensive impact remains enormous: Boston is a whopping 17 pts/100 possessions worse when Garnett is on the bench. In other words, the Bucks need to jump on the Celtics whenever KG isn't in the game.
Rondo. The Bucks stormed back from an early 17-0 deficit to beat the Celtics in Milwaukee on December 2, but Boston was without floor general Rajon Rondo thanks to a conveniently timed (for the Bucks at least) suspension. They won't have the same luck tonight. Rondo once again leads the league in assists by a huge margin--12.3 apg vs. second place Chris Paul's 9.3--but he's also scoring with increased effectiveness as well. Though he still doesn't shoot threes with any consistency, Rondo is punishing teams that sag off him from mid-range by hitting a fantastic 57% of his long twos.
Monta. Coming off his abysmal 1/14 shooting night on Wednesday, Ellis is hitting an anemic 25.5% of his shots over the past three and has combined with Jennings to comprise what could reasonably be described as the least efficient backcourt in the NBA. He's also apparently dealing with a sore back that kept him out of shootaround on Friday, while Jennings has a sore ankle, raising questions as to whether either will even play on Friday night. The good news: Jennings still believes in Monta:
"He's our scorer, so he's the most important player on this team," Jennings said. "With great scorers like that you shouldn't be too worried because they always come back strong."
I disagree with pretty much everything in that quote, but whatever. I wouldn't expect Brandon of all people to appreciate the finer points of usage and efficiency metrics (though the basics would be nice?), and I certainly don't mind him supporting Monta publicly, however misplaced that sentiment might be in the grand scheme of the universe. I also would be shocked if Jennings missed tonight's game.
But it's not just Brandon--major outlets are still running stories with titles like "Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis succeeding for Milwaukee Bucks" which may have some basis in reality from a won-loss standpoint but borders on ludicrous in terms of the tandem's production relative to historical expectations. Over at RealGM, LUKE23 had a great (OK, depressing) stat which says a lot about why the Bucks offense is currently 27th in the league: among players averaging 15 ppg or more, Ellis ranks 59th and Jennings 52nd in true shooting percentage, which is just about the best metric there is for measuring scoring efficiency. Sadly, Ellis ranks 59th out of (you guessed it!) 59 in that category, which makes the Bucks' duo easily the least effective high volume duo in the league. But while neither has ever been what one would describe as efficient in the scoring department, history says they can and should be better. Does that count as a silver lining?
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