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Three Things to Watch: Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks

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Which team do you believe is for real?

The Boston Celtics, with their defense, well-rounded roster, length, athleticism, All-NBA talent in Kyrie Irving, and the flashes of what could be (in the midst of a muddled season).

Or the Milwaukee Bucks, with their MVP-to-be talent in Giannis Antetokounmpo, their length, their shooting, their elite defense — is this team just a regular-season monster or can they carry it over to the postseason?

After this series, one of these teams will be seen as the real deal, and the other will have some soul searching — and roster tweaking — to do before next season. Here are three things to keep an eye on when these teams meet starting Sunday in Milwaukee.

1) Al Horford has to have a big series. On both ends. As Yahoo Sports’ Keith Smith said on this week’s PBT Podcast, Al Horford is not the best Celtic but he’s the most important. That has never been truer than this series.

Defensively, he has done as good a job as any player could be expected to do on the Greek Freak. Make no mistake, Antetokounmpo is going to get his, but like all the elite players the best a team can hope for is to make that player work for it and be a little less efficient. The Pacers couldn’t do it in the first round.

Horford has done that as well as anyone. When Horford has defended Antetokounmpo this season, the Celtics have outscored the Bucks.

Offensively, don’t expect Brad Stevens to stick with the two-big, Aron Baynes and Horford lineups like he did in the previous series. It’s just not a good matchup here. Offensively, the Celtics struggle to score when both are on the floor: Against the Pacers in the first round, the Celtics had an offensive rating of just 90.3 when Baynes and Horford played together and were actually a -5 in those minutes (and the Bucks defense is much better than the Pacers). Also, what the Bucks what to do defensively is keep Brook Lopez back in the paint to clog things up on drives, Baynes gives Lopez a guy that will not space the floor and allows him to stay back and play to the Bucks’ strengths.

Instead, expect a lot of Horford at center and shooters everywhere (Gordon Hayward will get a lot of run), so Lopez has to come out on the perimeter and driving lanes open up. Horford setting the screen and running a pick-and-pop with Irving or Jayson Tatum could be the staple of Boston’s attack, and Horford needs to hit those jumpers (and threes) to make it all work. The Bucks will likely counter with Antetokounmpo on Horford in the clutch, but that will mean Lopez on Jaylen Brown or Gordon Hayward, and they need to hit their threes and pull Lopez out of the paint.

If Horford has a huge series, the Celtics have a chance.

2) Can Boston slow Antetokounmpo without leaving shooters wide open? This is the problem every team faces against Milwaukee: Nobody can stop the Greek Freak one-one-one, but once help is sent a shooter — Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe — is left open. Those Bucks shooters are not just catch-and-shoot guys, they can put the ball on the floor, get inside and punish mismatches, or make plays in other ways.

Boston’s answer in part will be Horford. As detailed above, he is going to have a significant role and get critical minutes on Antetokounmpo. However, expect Semi Ojeleye to become Brad Steven’s other weapon to throw at Antetokounmpo, probably more and more as the series goes on. Because Ojeleye is up to the task.

If Boston can slow Antetokounmpo, just make him work and be less efficient rather than the guy who had 279 dunks this season, the Celtics take a huge step toward winning this series. However, every team this season tried that in some variation — including Detroit in the first round — and the Bucks ended up with the best record in the NBA and a first-round sweep. It will not be easy for the Celtics.

3) Which team finds offense against an elite defense? Milwaukee had the best defense in the NBA in the regular season, Boston was sixth best. Both teams allowed their opponent less than a point per possession in the first round.

These are two elite defensive teams and points are going to be hard to come by. The team that is best able to break through the defense and get steady Buckets will advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Boston’s offense is going to get threes, particularly from above the break — the Bucks defense is about sagging back and rim protection, they will surrender those looks. Knock them down (Boston shot 37.1 percent from there this season, above the league average) and it will pull out defenders, opening up driving lanes for Kyrie Irving to cause damage, and for Jayson Tatum to get to the rim as well. The other thing to watch when Boston has the ball: Milwaukee does not like to switch screens, they do less than just about every team in the league, but that too could open up opportunities for Irving and Tatum to attack, but they have to finish. Do those things and it takes the Bucks out of their comfort zone, and we’ll see how Mike Budenholzer and his charges adapt.

Expect the Bucks to defensively go at Irving, the weakest link in the Celtics’ chain. Milwaukee will run picks, force switches, and try to make Irving work on both ends. If the Bucks can find offense attacking Irving, as well as the usual points from Antetokounmpo, they should be able to get enough Buckets to win. But again, it will not be easy.

PREDICTION: Celtics in six. But I do not feel confident about that pick at all, it would not surprise me to see the Bucks win in seven. In the end it comes down to which team we think is real, and for all their stumbles and in fighting this season, I trust the Celtics, Brad Stevens, Kyrie Irving, and Al Horford to get it done. Then again, we have expected that all season and been let down, so we will see.

Report: Brad Stevens’ dedication to Gordon Hayward caused chemistry issues with Celtics

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Things are not all well in Boston. The Celtics are already in a free fall when it comes to free agency, and it’s not yet July. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are reportedly poised not to return to TD Garden next year. Now, a team that was aiming for the NBA Finals next year could be in serious trouble.

Things have quickly fallen apart for Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens, who are left with a team that also has an apparent enemy in one of the biggest agencies in Klutch Sports. Boston reportedly backed out of serious offers in trade negotiations with the New Orleans Pelicans in part because they felt as though Klutch client Anthony Davis would not re-sign after one year.

Basketball is a game of chemistry, and the Celtics seemed to lose theirs over the course of the year. At least externally, it appeared Boston was disintegrating. Now, according to a report from Jackie MacMullan, we have some confirmation of this rift.

Via NBC Sports Boston:

“You hate to pick on Gordon Hayward because he was coming back from injury and he was doing the best he could, but I really think that’s where it started,” she said. “They were force feeding him on his teammates, Brad [Stevens] knew Gordon well, he wanted to get his confidence back.

“I would contend that Brad Stevens would have done that for any player on that roster that had a catastrophic injury, he would want to fill him with that same confidence, but that’s not what happened,” MacMullan continued. “He gave the benefit of the doubt over and over to a player that wasn’t ready, to a guy who had history with him, and it rankled that locker room, and it bothered that locker room.”

The Celtics have a roster on paper that should have been good enough to get them deep into the playoffs. But Hayward returned and never really looked like himself, and Stevens devoting his faith to his former Butler Bulldog was obviously misplaced.

Chemistry issues for Boston we’re not all to blame on Stevens and Hayward. Irving is perennially mercurial. Given a situation where he got his own team (whatever that means) he didn’t lead the way folks were expecting.

Unless something drastic can be done — and don’t put it past Danny Ainge to get wild — Boston could be taking a step back next season.

Their saving grace, ironically, could be a fully healthy Hayward who has more reign to do what he wants and an unrestricted role on offense. We’ll see how that goes.

Report: Kawhi Leonard focusing on Clippers in free agency

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Kawhi Leonard might not be with the Toronto Raptors next season. That much has been apparent ever since the Raptors traded for Leonard last year, but the team did just win the 2019 NBA Finals. You know what they say: winning fixes everything.

But we are now into the thick of the NBA offseason, and that means crazy rumors and a wild game of Free agency musical chairs. Leonard could end up in many places, including Toronto. But the talk all along has been how Leonard prefers to land in Los Angeles.

The only problem for fans in L.A. county? His landing spot is unlikely to be the Los Angeles Lakers.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard’s focused on Los Angeles but only with the Clippers. In Wojnarowski’s opinion, Leonard is not interested in joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis as a third wheel on a superstar, big three type of Team. Instead, Leonard wants to have his own team match the way he does in Toronto. That could easily be the case with the Clippers.

Via ESPN:

The Lakers are trying to open up enough cap space for a third max-level player, which Leonard obviously is. But if things stand how they are now, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers will need to go elsewhere to find a third star to play alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Obviously the Lakers would be better suited by using their cap space to fill out their roster around their two superstars, but they probably won’t do that. In the end, Leonard focusing on the Clippers seems like the right choice.

Report: Lakers trying to open max salary slot with Anthony Davis trade

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The Los Angeles Lakers have Anthony Davis, but they aren’t done tweaking the details of the deal yet. Depending on when Davis’ trade gets completed, Los Angeles will open up myriad financial options for their free agency extravaganza this summer. Now it appears the Lakers might be trying to get a third team involved to help them grab max cap space.

We’ve explained the cap ramifications as the deal stood with the New Orleans Pelicans already. On one end, Los Angeles could wait until July 30. After renouncing some free agents, this would leave L.A. with $32 million in cap space. If they complete the deal on July 6, and if Davis waives his $4 million trade kicker, they end up with somewhere between $24 — $28 million.

Now it appears the Lakers will go for the full max slot space.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers are looking to ship out some of its younger players — turning the Davis trade with New Orleans into a 3-team deal — to satisfy some CBA rules that allow them to get to that mark. The Lakers have made Mo Wagner, Jemerrio Jones, and Isaac Bonga available.

Via Twitter:

Los Angeles is also reportedly looking to grab some second round picks, which allow for cheap contracts that they can use to fill out its roster while going over the salary cap.

This is a bold endeavor.

No doubt the front office in L.A. looked at the trade the Toronto Raptors made for Kawhi Leonard this past season feel as though adding more stars to its roster cannot possibly hurt. The only problem is that the Raptors already had a team good team unit in place when they traded for Leonard. Los Angeles won’t have any players of note when they head into this season, even if they are able to sign a third star to go with LeBron James and Davis.

It’s really going to be difficult to see how Davis, James, and a third star will carry this team if there is a steep drop-off between the bench rotation. Even considering veteran minimum signings — which always happen for championship-contending teams — this team needs more role players.

This is an extremely Los Angeles thing to do, and this thing just keeps getting more complicated the farther we get into the NBA offseason. It’s not even July yet, and it’s already wild in the Association.

Report: Al Horford not returning to Boston, will sign elsewhere this summer

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Boston’s disastrous season — and off-season — just keeps getting worse. Anthony Davis is a Laker, Kyrie Irving is out the door and now this.

Al Horford opted out of the $30.1 million the Celtics owed him this summer, but that was expected. A lot of people around the league also assumed he would begin negotiating with Boston to return for a longer contract, worth more money overall but a little less per year, that would give him some security.

He is going to get that security elsewhere, reports Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

The buzz from around the league is this is more about Boston not wanting to pay him and do a retooling of their roster around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown than it is Horford wanting out. Either way, it puts an outstanding player on the market.

Horford is 33 years old and teams may be concerned about the final year of a four-year contract, but he is kind of glue big man who can do everything well that could fit a lot of places and lift teams up to the next level. Horford can play in the post, shot 36 percent from three, sets good screens, is a good defender and role player, and just seems to have no holes in his game. That versatility makes him incredibly valuable.

Horford is going to get paid this summer — not max money, but close enough to it to make him happy — and some team is going to get a lot better when they do it.