After suffering double-digit losses at the hands of the Conference-topping Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors, the Milwaukee Bucks weren't inspiring much confidence when the dreaded Chicago Bulls rolled into town on Wednesday. But instead of crumbling at home, the Bucks battled to a hard-fought 95-91 victory on the back of an uncharacteristic Michael Carter-Williams 21p/10r double-double. The win ended a nine-game home losing streak to Chicago, setting the table for the Bucks to potentially snap another streak when they take on the tied-for-the-8th Celtics in Boston tonight. After starting the season 15-12 on the road, Milwaukee has dropped 11 straight away from the BMO Harris Bradley Center, an ugly streak that they'd desperately like to put behind them.
With both teams jockeying for position in the bottom third of the Eastern Conference playoff standings, the importance of this game cannot be understated. Boston is tied with the Miami Heat for the 8th spot at 34-41, and sophomore head coach Brad Stevens has his team playing .500 ball down the stretch (5-5 in their last 10). Though a trip to the lottery might have been the best result for a roster lacking potential stars, Stevens has made the most of the Celtics' young talent, providing optimism that the team can continue improving incrementally while Danny Ainge looks to hit a home run via trade, free agency or with one of their dozens of future first round picks.
With the Brooklyn Nets trailing the Bucks by only 2.5 games in the standings, Jason Kidd's troops will also be desperate to maintain their winning ways. Cleveland stands as the only +.500 opponent remaining on the schedule, providing a golden opportunity for the Bucks to nail down a playoff spot and build some positive momentum heading into the postseason. Needless to say, coming out flat against an energetic and fast-moving Boston team won't be in Kidd's plans.
Back in October, few figured that the Celtics' current patchwork roster would be nearly enough to be competitive, even in an admittedly weak Eastern Conference. Instead of fighting for losses and lottery position, however, Boston has scraped and fought to the precipice of the East playoff picture while posting middle-of-the-road marks of 104.3 offensive rating (18th in the league) and 104.9 defensive rating (13th) on the year.
Instead of falling apart when key pieces were traded away mid-season, the Celtics have actually bounced back with the spotlight falling on Isaiah Thomas fresh off the plane from Phoenix. After being acquired at the trade-deadline from the Suns, Thomas has nominally returned to the form reminiscent of his time in Sacramento, posting 18.2 ppg on 38.1% shooting (32% from three), 5.3 apg, and 2.1 rpg in 15 games. With star rookie Marcus Smart being on-again, off-again with injuries all year long, Thomas has found plenty of minutes and quite the green light to shoot the ball to his heart's content, which really is when he is at his best.
Former #2 overall pick Evan Turner might be considered the Celtics' other diamond in the rough of late, having notched three triple-doubles this year, the latest coming on Wednesday with a 13-point, 12-assist, 11-rebound line as the Celtics topped the Pacers at home. Turner, a jack of all trades who doesn't excel in any specific aspect of the game, can still be a danger to make his impact felt from night to night with an unexpected scoring outburst, so keeping him locked down from the tip should be a focus for Jason Kidd and the Bucks defense.
When looking over the statistical profile for Boston, their middle of the road stats are quite consistent across the board. Their strengths come on the defensive end as they hold opponents eFG% down to around 49.2% (13th in the league) or crashing the defensive glass, scooping up 75.1% of all possible rebound attempts (14th overall). On offense, don't expect them to give the ball up much to allow for easy transition buckets as they keep their turnover rate down with just 12.5% of possessions ending in a turnover.
Their shooting from outside is some of the worst in the game, and moving inside the arc doesn't help their scoring all that much, which means that one might reasonably expect tonight to devolve down into a defensive slugfest down the stretch.
UPDATE: Somewhat out of the blue, Sullinger has been declared fit for tonight's game. He had previously been thought to be out for the season.
Having been riddled with injuries all year long, Boston goes into tonight having only big man Jared Sullinger on the injury report having suffered a stress fracture earlier in February. Sullinger is a fantastic talent who adds a lot of versatility to Boston's offense, but his continued weight problems have limited his progress to date, so keep an eye on where he progresses from this off-season forward. Outside of that, Brad Stevens will have a full compliment of options available for picking heading into tonight.
Similarly for the Bucks, the only members out are the usual suspects in Jabari Parker and Damien Inglis. O.J. Mayo and Jared Dudley, both having dealt with nagging bumps and bruises coming out of the All-Star break, seem to be reaching the final stages of full reintegration into the rotation. During the tumultuous time following the trade deadline, the most visible weakness for the Bucks was the near-null production coming from a bench unit that was one of the best in the league for the majority of the year, and the return of veteran members to that unit should help stabilize Jason Kidd's team.
Key Matchup: Evan Turner vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo
For all his box score-stuffing tendencies, Turner remains one of the league's more frustrating talents. Though he remains one of the league's best playmakers on the wing, his inability to score with any sort of efficiency (9.5 ppg on an ugly 48.2% true shooting) limits his overall impact and helps explain why the Celtics have been dramatically better with him on the bench.
Facing the octopus-limbed Giannis Antetokounmpo won't making scoring any easier tonight, and he'll likewise have his hands full stopping Giannis from getting to his spots on the other end. You'd like to see the Bucks try to take advantage of Antetokounmpo's size advantage on the block and in transition, though the Celtics may also want to think twice before leaving him alone outside.
|2014/2015 NBA Season|
|April 3, 2015|
|TD Garden | Boston, MA|
|FS Wisconsin | 620 WTMJ|
|Michael Carter-Williams||PG||Marcus Smart|
|Khris Middleton||SG||Avery Bradley|
|Giannis Antetokounmpo||SF||Evan Turner|
|Ersan Ilyasova||PF||Brandon Bass|
|Zaza Pachulia||C||Tyler Zeller|
|2014/15 Advanced Stats|
|93.8 (16th)||Pace||95.7 (6th)|
|102.7 (26th)||ORtg||104.3 (18th)|
|102.6 (4th)||DRtg||104.9 (13th)|