Maybe the Milwaukee Bucks get the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals.
Or maybe they face the Boston Celtics.
Either way, the Bucks will face a formidable opponent that won’t be intimidated by Milwaukee’s .818 winning percentage and MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and is capable of winning a seven-game series.
Can the Celtics be that team?
Before the restart at Disney’s ESPN sports complex near Orlando, Florida, Celtics coach Brad Stevens wondered if his team would be ready for this matchup against the Bucks.
Stevens always wonders about these things. Asked earlier this season after a close road loss to the Los Angeles Lakers if the Celtics could get where they want to go, Stevens said, “I don’t know. We’ll see. We’ll try.”
The Celtics have the talent. It’s a question of putting it together.
And though it’s just one restart game against the team with the best record in the NBA, Boston is capable of pushing the Bucks, which is exactly what the Celtics did Friday night in a 119-112 loss.
“When I look back at this game, this will probably be one we thought we had looks at the rim that they closed down the path, and often times when you miss layups or when you get shots blocked, it leads to runouts,” Stevens said. “That happened to us against Milwaukee two years ago in the playoffs, let alone last year.”
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A Bucks-Celtics series later this summer would make another great Eastern Conference playoffs matchup. Milwaukee took care of Boston 4-1 in last season’s conference semifinals, and the Celtics edged the Bucks 4-3 in a 2018 first-round series.
A third consecutive playoff meeting would thrill the NBA with plenty of star power.
Let’s get the obligatory caveats out of the way from Friday. The Bucks were without Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton, and Boston’s Kemba Walker is on a minutes restriction that limited him to 19 minutes.
Now, what makes Boston a threat? The Celtics have talented two-way players, some of whom are on the verge of stardom and will be the league’s top players for the next decade.
Jaylen Brown, 23, had 22 points, and can guard a variety of perimeter positions. Marcus Smart had 23 points, and he is an All-NBA caliber defender, and while Jayson Tatum, 22, had an off game with just five points on 2-for-18 shooting, he has the skillset to emerge as an MVP candidate in the next few seasons.
Boston also has a quality coach in Stevens, who, like Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer, is looking for more extended playoff success. They are both among the top coaches in the league but without a Finals appearance.
The question for the Celtics the past couple of seasons has been: when are they going to put it together and win the East? They almost did it in 2018 but lost to Cleveland in a seven-game conference finals series.
Timing hasn’t been good to the Celtics. It’s difficult to win a title when LeBron James and now Antetokounmpo are in the way.
The Bucks star showed why he is in line to win his second consecutive MVP, scoring 36 points and adding 15 rebounds and seven assists. A player like that is the difference.
The Celtics can push the Bucks, but can they beat them?
Stevens knows the answer to that.
“I just think your margin for error is small,” Stevens said.
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