BOSTON (AP) — The Celtics’ sweep over the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs underscored one thing about Boston’s late-season rise to the top of the NBA’s Eastern Conference: It wasn’t A random.
Building on the defensive mark cultivated under rookie coach Ime Udoka and punctuated with big scoring plays by All-Star Jayson Tatum, Boston thwarted a Brooklyn team that seemed to be gaining late-season momentum led by Kevin Durant. and Kyrie Irving.
The only team to record a four-game first-round sweep, the Celtics are a conference-leading 37-10 since losing to the Knicks on Jan. 6. They enter their second-round game with the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks playing their best basketball of the season.
Udoka said their performance against a high-quality Nets team that wasn’t a typical No. 7 seed bodes well for them going forward.
“We understood that it’s the playoffs and we’re going to have to play some really good teams,” he said. “The only thing we talk about is that we’re a basketball team, not a track team. We don’t run away from people.
That includes taking on the challenge of trying to slow reigning NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. The teams haven’t met in a playoff since 2019, which Milwaukee won 4-1 in what turned out to be Irving’s last games in a Boston jersey.
They have shared their four regular season meetings this season, although they have never met at full strength or with the Celtics’ starting lineup after the trade deadline of Robert Williams, Al Horford, Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart on the floor. This group is 27-7 this season but hasn’t faced Antetokounmpo with the kind of reliable outside shooters he now has around him.
“We all know what Giannis is capable of, what he’s done, what he’s doing and what he’s going to try to do,” Smart said. “For us, it’s going to take another team effort. With those guys, he makes it really tough because of how aggressive he is and how he can get in the way and not just create for himself, but create for other guys. These guys are sitting there ready for him to serve it on a platter.
The Bucks cruised to a 4-1 win over Chicago in the first round, but one player the Celtics may not have to deal with is Khris Middleton, whose availability for this series remains uncertain. The three-time All-Star hasn’t played since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee 10 days ago in Game 2 against the Bulls.
Since Tatum and Brown’s first season together in Boston in 2017-18, Middleton has averaged 22.4 points and shot 52% from the field in two playoff series against the Celtics.
But coach Mike Budenholzer said what he brings on the defensive end is just as hard to replace.
“I think he’s underappreciated in what he does defensively, including the big playoffs, the big moments, keeping the best wings,” Budenholzer said. “He takes great pride in being a good defenseman. Also a bit underrated, his size, he just does a lot of things, gets hits, gets rebounds, can start the break from a rebound. And he’s smart. He’s a good communicator. I think he helps the guys there. He sees and feels things at a high level defensively. There’s a lot of things we miss on that side of the game. ground.
Budenholzer said he remains hopeful George Hill can return at some point in the series, although the 35-year-old guard is not expected to be available for Sunday’s opener. Hill missed the entire Chicago series with abdominal strain.
NO PAIN FOR WILLIAMS
Udoka said Williams didn’t feel any pain in his surgically repaired left knee after returning to the field for Brooklyn’s final two games of the series.
The next step is to regain his conditioning before his minutes return to normal.
“I don’t think the wind was quite there the last two games,” Udoka said. “You can play as much as you want, but there’s no way to really mimic the pace and action of live play. So getting your wind back will be big this week. Just get some live work done during days and have it rebuilt so it can return to its normal rotation, lineups, and minutes.
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