By Alex Strouf for Cream City Central
The Milwaukee Bucks finally get to continue their quest for an NBA championship after a four-month hiatus on July 31, taking on the third-place Boston Celtics in the first of eight remaining regular season games. During these unique circumstances, question marks surround just about every aspect of the return to basketball. Will no fans affect momentum? How will chemistry be for teams that haven’t played together in months? Will the stars play for the Bucks?
While we won’t have the answer to many of these questions until Milwaukee takes the court at the Orlando-based bubble, we know the quest for a Larry O’Brien Trophy remains the same for the Bucks.
“At the end of the day, this is going to be the toughest championship you could ever win,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said during a Zoom press conference two weeks ago. “The circumstances are really, really tough, so whoever wants it more, is going to be able to go out there and take it.”
The quest continues.
As the Bucks and Celtics prepare to restart the season, let’s take a look at some of the matchups and notable numbers for each squad.
The Bucks have the benefit of solid separation between their first place standings and the rest of the Eastern Conference. Their magic number is two: win two games and you claim the top spot, or just beat the Raptors on August 10. Assuming Mike Budenholzer’s squad is aiming to secure the top seed as early as possible, a win to start bubble play has to be on the top of the priority list. It’s good news then that the early spread according to SBD has the Bucks as five-point favorites.
Milwaukee (53-12) is led by the MVP-frontrunner, Antetokounmpo, who was averaging 29.6 pointers and 13.7 rebounds per game on only 30.9 minutes per contest before the league’s sudden halt. His numbers, fittingly, are freakish. All-Star Khris Middleton scored 39 points in his last game before the stoppage and has played second fiddle as well as anybody in the league during this whacky 2019-20 campaign.
Boston (43-21) is only three games back of Toronto for second place in the East, so a kickstart in the reboot is what Brad Stevens’ squad is searching for. Led by a nice mixture of young stars and savvy veterans, the Celtics are versatile and effective on both sides of the floor. Boston hoists the second-best defensive scoring defense, allowing only 106.8 PPG, bested only by Toronto at 106.5. Jayson Tatum has made incredible improvements in his third year, leading the way for the C’s at 23.6 PPG. Veteran floor general Kemba Walker and backcourt partner Jaylen Brown are each averaging over 20 points per contest.
In two meetings (reminder: several months ago) this season, the home team won each game. Obviously in Orlando, there is no ‘home field advantage’ factor. Regardless, in October, Boston was led by Walker, who dropped 32 in only his second as a Celtic at TD Garden. Gordon Hayward posted a 21-point, 10-rebound double-double, and Jayson Tatum poured in 25. Giannis did Giannis, posting 22 and 14, while Middleton scored a team-high 26 in a 116-105 Boston win.
Remember, though, this was October. Donte DiVincenzo didn’t play, and he was averaging over 20 minutes per game during the final month of play.
The second meeting on January 16 was more of the current version of the Bucks. In Fiserv Forum, Milwaukee posted 76 points in the first half, and cruised in the second half to a tight 128-123 victory. Five Bucks scored in double figures, including the aforementioned DiVincenzo, who was money from outside and added 19 off the bench. In the second meeting of the two, the Bucks still didn’t have a defensive answer for Kemba Walker, who charted a game-high 40 points. Antetokounmpo had an MVP-like performance and stole the show, though, leading the Bucks with 32 points, 17 boards, and seven dimes.
While player minutes, chemistry, and a neutral site with no crowd will all surely provide their fair share of question marks entering the restart, one thing remains clear: two of the best coaches in basketball are each in great positions in the Eastern Conference standings with eight games to go. We get to yell, “Bucks in six,” once again, July 31 at 6:30EST on ESPN.