Aron Baynes

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Danny Ainge calls restructuring Al Horford’s contract status one of Celtics’ priorities

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Kyrie Irving‘s upcoming summer has generated plenty of attention.

But he’s not the only Celtics starter who could hit unrestricted free agency.

Al Horford has a $30,123,015 player option for next season. That’s likely a higher salary than Horford could get in free agency, so he could opt in. The 33-year-old could also opt out to re-sign on a long-term deal that includes a lower salary next season but more total compensation. Or he could even opt out to leave Boston.

Celtics president Danny Ainge sounds interested in the second option.

Asked about the possibility that Al Horford could opt out of the final year of his deal (and $30.1 million) and negotiate a potential extension to stay in Boston, Ainge said, “That will be discussed. That’s one of the priorities on our list as well.”

If Irving, Horford and Aron Baynes opt out and Boston renounces all its free agents, the Celtics would project to have about $32 million in cap space. But in this hypothetical, a bulk of that earmarked would be earmarked for Horford. Will there be enough space left to exceed the $9 million-ish Boston could spend through the mid-level exception available to over-the-cap teams?

In other words, this might be a year to pay Horford his high salary. If he’ll come cheaper in future seasons, the savings could be more valuable then.

But if Horford opts in rather than opting out to re-sign a long-term deal, the Celtics risk losing him entirely in 2020 free agency. Even if the intention now is for him to re-sign, so much can change in a year.

Of course, Horford holds the cards. It’s his option.

Boston can entice him, though. The Celtics must evaluate their direction. Will Irving defy convention and re-sign? Will Boston trade for Anthony Davis and prioritize the present? Will the Celtics build more patiently around Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and multiple extra first-round draft picks this year and future years? All that will inform how Boston proceeds with Horford.

Likewise, Horford must decide whether he wants to stay. The veteran could see a team losing its best player and want to move on himself.

But there’s definitely potential for the Celtics and Horford to commit long-term to each other very soon.

Celtics aim to frustrate Giannis Antetokounmpo again in Game 2

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Each time Giannis Antetokounmpo touched the ball, he was swarmed by various Boston Celtics’ defenders. Whether it was Jayson Tatum or Al Horford, Antetokounmpo experienced a difficult time in Game 1 and so did the rest of the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks.

Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer is optimistic his star will bounce back and he will find out if Antetokounmpo recovers from a rough series opener Tuesday night when the Bucks host the Celtics in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

“As great as he’s been, he hasn’t been perfect every night,” Budenholzer said. “He’s hard on himself, so there will probably be some point where I put my arms around him and tell him, ‘You’re going to be great.'”

The series will shift to Boston for Game 3 on Friday night and Milwaukee hopes to avoid joining the 2018 Toronto Raptors as the only top seed to fall behind 2-0 in this round under the current 16-team format that began in 1984.

On Sunday, the Celtics opened the series by cruising to a 112-90 victory, mostly because of how they defended Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo scored 22 points but shot 7 of 21 and did not hit his first basket until the second quarter and Milwaukee was dominated in the second half after trailing by two at halftime.

“Whenever I got in the paint and I (spun) or tried to change direction, a second guy was right there,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’ve just got to go watch tape. If they’re going to play like this the whole series, I’ve got to be able to make the right pass and trust my teammates to knock down shots.”

Milwaukee shot 34.8 percent and had 11 shots blocked. Antetokounmpo shot 4 of 15 in the paint and was 2 of 10 when guarded by Horford or Aron Baynes.

It was Milwaukee’s lowest shooting percentage in a postseason game since Game 6 of the 2015 first round against the Chicago Bulls.

“Well, they hit us in the mouth,” Milwaukee point guard George Hill said. “That was pretty surprising. But it’s the playoffs and you have to learn how to hit and get back up.”

Besides counting on Antetokounmpo recovering from one of his worst games of the year, the Bucks are hoping others can help them recover from the third-worst loss by a No. 1 seed in a series opener under the league’s current format.

Khris Middleton was held to 16 points on 5-of-12 shooting while Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez finished with a combined nine points on a combined 2 of 10 from the floor.

Boston is unbeaten in the postseason and is attempting to start a postseason with six straight wins for the first time since 1985-86. The Celtics are allowing 91.4 points per game in their first five playoff games and getting enough offense by scoring 101.8 points per game.

Besides the stifling defense, the Celtics also shot 54 percent. It was their highest field goal percentage in a conference semifinal game since Game 5 in 2010 at Cleveland.

“I think we definitely played like a team tonight,” Boston forward Gordon Hayward said. “I’ve talked about it all year, but we have so many different guys that can step up and make plays and make shots. Seemed like guys tonight made timely buckets all over the place. We’re trying to draw together and come together here and accomplish one goal. This is a good start to that.”

Kyrie Irving opened the series with 26 points and 11 assists while Horford added 20 and 11, respectively. Afterward, it was Horford’s defense on Antetokounmpo that had the Celtics buzzing.

Horford was on the floor at the same time as Antetokounmpo for 22 minutes. During those minutes, Antetokounmpo made 2 of 11 shots, had two shots blocked by Horford as the Bucks posted a 63.3 offensive rating in those minutes.

“Our focus was to make sure that we just made it tough on him every time, just making sure he earned everything he got,” Horford said. “I felt like we did a pretty good job of that.”

If the Celtics can defend as effectively as they did in Game 1, they will get a 2-0 lead in this round for the third straight season.

 

Kyrie Irving, Al Horford lead Celtics past Bucks 112-90 in opener

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MILWAUKEE (AP) Kyrie Irving had 26 points and 11 assists, Al Horford added 20 points and 11 rebounds, and the Boston Celtics cruised past the Milwaukee Bucks 112-90 on Sunday in the opener of their second-round playoff series.

Jaylen Brown chipped in with 19 points and Gordon Hayward had 13 off the bench for the Celtics. Boston controlled the game for long stretches and played stingy defense against MVP candidate Giannis Antetokoumpo, who scored 22 points but shot just 7 for 21. Antetokounmpo didn’t make his first field goal until the first minute of the second quarter.

Game 2 is Tuesday in Milwaukee.

Khris Middleton had 16 for Milwaukee, which completed a four-game sweep of the Detroit Pistons on Monday and advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001. The Celtics came off a sweep of their own against Indiana.

The Celtics knocked Milwaukee out of the playoffs in seven games last year, winning the final game at home. This year, Milwaukee is the top seed in the East and has home-court advantage throughout the postseason after posting the NBA’s best record, but Boston didn’t play like an underdog in any way.

The Celtics jumped out early, leading by as many as 11 in the opening quarter. Boston shot 52% while the Bucks shot only 5 of 19.

The shooting woes continued for the Bucks until midway through the second quarter, when Milwaukee used a 15-0 run to pull even at 40. The teams then traded baskets with the Celtics grabbing a 52-50 lead at the half.

Boston used a 9-0 run in the third quarter to again build a double-digit lead, which grew to as much as 21 as Milwaukee again failed to make shots.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Boston players wore a black stripe with the No. 17 on their jerseys to honor Hall of Famer John Havlicek, who died Thursday at the age of 79. The team won eight championships during Havlicek’s 16 seasons with the Celtics. Havlicek was the MVP of the 1974 NBA Finals when the Celtics defeated the Bucks in Game 7 at the MECCA in Milwaukee. A moment of silence was held before tipoff. . G Marcus Smart traveled to Milwaukee but wasn’t in uniform. Smart has been out since suffering a left oblique tear on April 7. Smart has been practicing with the team but isn’t expected play in Game 2 either. “I don’t see any way that he’s available until what we thought initially, four to six (weeks) and I said at the start that four seems awfully aggressive,” coach Brad Stevens said. ….F/C Aron Baynes left the game in the third quarter after rolling his left ankle.

Bucks: Starting guard Malcolm Brogdon, who is recovering from a partially torn plantar fascia in his right foot, remained out but took part in shooting drills before the game. He’s also expected to miss Game 2 before being re-evaluated. The 2017 Rookie of the Year has been out since March 15. . Center Pau Gasol (left foot soreness) was inactive. He missed the final 15 regular-season games and didn’t play in the opening round. There’s no timetable for his return.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

This story has been corrected to show the final score was 112-90 in the first paragraph.

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.

Watch Kyrie Irving’s game winner to beat Pacers, move Celtics up to fourth in East

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Boston may well be home for the first round of the playoffs.

Probably against the Indiana Pacers — and if Friday night is any indication we are in for a seriously entertaining series.

This one came down to the final seconds, but this is why the Celtics wanted Kyrie Irving — the man is a closer of the highest order. His driving layup with 0.5 seconds beat the Pacers and lifted the Celtics into the four seed in the East.

The Pacers made some poor choices down the stretch in this game. In their chance to take the lead right before Irving’s shot, they set picks for Darren Collison while Bojan Bogdanovic — Indiana’s leading scorer with 27 points on 8-of-13 shooting — basically stood in the corner as a decoy. (Collison got a good look at an elbow jumper but missed it.)

Then on the final play, Al Horford is working hard to get the ball to Irving and when he does Myles Turner shows out and doubles Irving behind the arc… and then Turner inexplicably slides back over to cover Horford opening up a straight line drive for Irving to the rim. Thaddeus Young starts to help off Jayson Tatum in the corner but is so concerned about a pass to Tatum he never fully commits, so Irving gets to the rim. The odds of a Horford three (35.4 percent from that area of the floor this season) or Tatum three (26.7 percent this season from the right corner) are lower than an Irving layup.

Irving finished with 30 points on the night, Horford pitched in 19, and Aron Baynes had 13 points and 13 rebounds. Bogdanovic led the Pacers with 27, Young had 18.

Indiana and Boston are now tied for the 4/5 seed in the East, with Boston ahead on tiebreakers at the moment. While the two teams have about an equal strength of schedule, Boston has played better of late while the Pacers, 3-7 in their last 10, have come back to earth after losing Victor Oladipo.