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.

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

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The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.