The Celtics roll on with a 111-100 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. Boston moves to 21-4 and are already starting to push teams pretty far back in the race to lock up home court in Round 1 of the playoffs. If the regular season checklist goes: playoffs -> home court -> 1-seed, the first two could be functionally locked up by Christmas.
Having a Balanced Team
If you just check the box score this game looks like a classic Giannis vs. Kyrie shootout. The Celtics really won this game by not having to rely entirely on Irving. Jayson Tatum jumped out to a very fast start with 16 early points on 4-4 threes before passing the baton to Kyrie and Al Horford in the second half. Aron Baynes also had a solid contribution in the opening half. Marcus Smart led the defense down the stretch. Terry Rozier and Daniel Theis chipped in with their normal contributions.
The Bucks don’t have the Celtics depth to lean on throughout the game. Giannis, Eric Bledsoe, and Kris Middleton all had their moments but that was about it. Even Tony Snell, who shot well and hit double-digits, did literally nothing else with no rebounds, assists, blocks, or steals. Malcolm Brogdon is a nice player but once you classify him as a 24 year old bench guard instead of a rookie starter his real level might emerge. This isn’t a secret, but they need Jabari Parker to come back and force everyone “down” one spot in the rotation.
Being a Freak
For all that the Celtics used their depth to establish a lead, it did eventually devolve into a showdown between two of the league’s athletic marvels.
The Greek Freak was unstoppable drawing a pile of fouls in the first quarter and then simply going to the rack for the rest of the night on his way to 40 and 9. The Celtics have a lot of answers on defense but maybe not one for Giannis. They were able to neutralize Ben Simmons, a theoretically similar player, by dropping and challenging at the rim, but Antetokounmpo just muscles up and dunks on you if he gets to that spot. The scary thing is that he has a lot of room for further growth because of the clear weaknessaes still in his game.
Kyrie doesn’t have the visible tools that Giannis is blessed with but he’s a freak in his own right. He showed off the best handle in the league and his preternatural gift for angles and touch in scoring 32 of his own. Both players took 24 FGAs but Gianni’s ability to get to the free throw line was the difference in their scoring outputs. When Boston needed a closer, Irving was there once again.
Boston’s do-it-all big man’s dip in form seems to have ended. After four consecutive single-digit scoring nights in mid-November he’s posted 20+ in three of the past five, and been in double digits for all five. A game after setting a career high with 11 assists he put up 20/9/8 while taking his shifts trying to contain Giannis.
Horford is what makes the team tick. When he’s engaged on both ends like this and getting a reasonable number of shots up the team almost always looks good. It’s possibly not a coincidence that his brief run of down games came shortly after he sustained a concussion. If that was playing a part and is no longer an issue, the Celtics should continue to control the Eastern Conference.
Having Literally No Good Centers
The Bucks looked like an argument for having a real center tonight. The league is moving away from slow-footed post-up behemoths but it helps to have at least a few reliable bruisers with enough mobility and passing to not kill the defense. John Henson has some useful skills as a third big but if he’s starting for you, it’s not great. He finished 0-6 with only three rebounds and functionally no positive impact on the game.
Thon Maker is supposed to be the future answer for the Bucks but tonight he logged only eight minutes and just chucked the ball at the hoop while he was out there. It’s only one game, and he’s played a few more minutes most nights, but he’s only scored in double-digits once the whole season. Milwaukee needs more out of the center position in general, and Maker in particular.
Jason Kidd, HC
The Bucks coach seems to have figured out league politics better than game rotations. Boston has clearly benefitted from limiting the minutes of their stars. It’s allowed the team to bounce from game-to-game, but also exert their will at key moments in specific games. Kidd let Giannis play basically all of the second half until the 5:00 mark before pulling him out for a quick rest right as crunch time started. He looked tired by the end, even as he continued to attack.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Boston has been so good at the end of games. Irving and Horford rarely get left on the court to run their batteries all the way down and when they hit the floor with the closing unit they always look fresher than their opponents. The 4-6 minutes more that Kidd played Giannis and Kris Middleton makes it seem like you’re treating this as a “big game” but it almost certainly hurts the team over the course of the season, and may have hurt them on the night.
Last season I often joked that the Celtics were #BlowoutAverse because of their ability to come back from any deficit and throw away any lead. This season they’ve had the comeback part down, but had done a good job of maintaining comfortable leads once they establish them. The past week has seen a few big leads get frittered away; tonight the Celtics were up 20 in the third quarter before letting the Bucks back in it.
That’s not a good team trait and one that I hope doesn’t creep back in. Extending leads and finishing blowouts allows players to rest and young players to get a bit of experience. We haven’t seen much of Guerschon Yabusele, Abdel Nader, or Shane Larkin lately. If the game had been closed out in the third quarter they may have gotten some run.
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