The months’ long NBA regular season marathon has hit its final stage. While there is a serious late season fight for the back end of the playoff and play-in slots, particularly in the Western Conference, teams at the top have pretty much sealed up their spots.
Not that long ago, the Celtics looked like the league’s best team. On January 21st, Boston beat the Toronto Raptors for a ninth straight win. They sat at 35-12. On the same night, the Milwaukee Bucks lost by 12 to the Cleveland Cavaliers to fall to 29-17.
Superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo sat his fifth straight game. Khris Middleton was still sidelined as well, having only played seven games to that point and none since mid December. They trailed the Celtics by 5.5 games and the biggest concern was getting their stars back on the court and in rhythm with each other.
Both would come back for the next game, and the Bucks pretty much stopped ever losing. They took their next 16, lost a close one to the Sixers, then won three more. Meanwhile the Celtics have returned to the pack, going 11-9.
What once looked like an insurmountable lead considering the Celtics were on pace to lose maybe 20-22 games all year now turned into a deficit. The Bucks sit 2.5 games ahead heading into their final 16 games and the Celtics final 15.
Each team would love that top seed. It is home court until at least the finals and it means not having to face the Sixers in Round 2. The Sixers themselves could theoretically get to the top as they sit just two back of Boston.
The issue is that all three teams will clearly prioritize player health and fatigue over playoff seeding. Giannis is currently out of the lineup again for two straight games and counting with a sore right hand that almost certainly would not keep him out of a playoff game.
Joel Embiid misses a game every week or two to help keep him upright for April. Even Jayson Tatum, younger and healthier than his fellow superstars, misses games here and there for relatively minor dings, including a recent trip to Milwaukee.
So how do the Bucks and Celtics stack up in a potential playoff showdown? The betting markets rate it too close to call. Here are the odds to win the NBA Eastern Conference, courtesy of BetMGM.
- Celtics +135
- Bucks +150
- Sixers +650
- Cavaliers +1200
- Knicks +2000
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Both betting odds and advanced statistical modeling sites favored the Celtics into mid season, but have since moved the Bucks up to parity or higher. On January 21st, FiveThirtyEight ranked the Celtics as the best team in the league and had them about 6 points better than the Bucks were they to play on a neutral court with projected full rosters.
The Celtics were priced at about +180 to take the East and given a 43% chance to go to the finals as per FiveThirtyEight, while the Bucks were +375, behind even the Nets. Boston had a point differential of 7.4 per 100 non garbage time possessions to that point of the season, best in the league as per Cleaning the Glass. Milwaukee’s differential was 10th best at 1.6.
Fast forward to now and that power ratings difference is down to one point. Since January 21st, the Bucks have a league-best 12.5 points differential per 100 possessions, with the Celtics seventh at 2.8. As far as the playoffs go, FiveThirtyEight actually favors the Bucks, giving them a 37% chance to take the East, vs 26% for the Celtics.
ESPN’s Basketball Power Index is pretty similar. They rate the Bucks best in the league and 0.2 better than the second-place Celtics, with Milwaukee given a 30.9% chance to win the conference vs 29.6% for Boston.
The full versions of the two teams appear close enough that it will almost certainly come down to overall team health. The Bucks have all their key players back on the floor right now, save for the recent Giannis tweak that would not sideline him when the games really matter.
Khris Middleton is still rounding into form as he is only playing 22.2 minutes per game on the season, though 27 in his last five. He has scored just over 20 points per game in four of the last six seasons, but is down to 13.6 PPG this season. Further, his 3P% sits at 29.2% vs a career 38.9% mark, dragging down his True Shooting % to a career-low of 52.7%.
Even with his spotty shooting thus far, he is a big part of the Bucks best statistical lineup, alongside Giannis, Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen and Brook Lopez. In the relatively small sample of 117 possessions that group has played together, they have outscored opponents by 20.5 points per 100 possessions as per CTG.
The good news for the Bucks is other players stepped up their game while Middleton missed that time. When Jevon Carter plays with that above group instead of Middleton they get a little smaller but maintain the same level of excellence as they outscore opponents by 19.8 per 100 possessions.
Holiday in particular has emerged as a second star and carried the Bucks when Giannis has sat, averaging 19.7 points, 7.3 assists, 5 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game, hitting 38.5% from three with a 58.5% True Shooting % and making his second All-Star game. The Bucks are 10.5 points per 100 possessions better when Holiday is on the court vs not, tops on the team.
The Celtics have had a tough time with continuity in the last 20 games as every key rotation player besides Derrick White has missed at least a game. Everyone is healthy now except for Robert Williams who will miss at least a week more and possibly longer with a hamstring injury.
The Time Lord has only played 28 games all year, but his presence is huge literally and figuratively with 8.6 RPG and 1.2 BPG in just 24 minutes per game. Boston gets 7% more offensive rebounds and 4% more defensive rebounds when he is on the floor according to CTG.
Their best alignment is White, Jaylen Brown, Tatum, Al Horford and Williams as they’ve outscored opponents by a whopping 43.6 points per 100 possessions. Unfortunately, Boston has only gotten 138 possessions from that group.
The Bucks and Celtics have faced off twice this season and split the games, though Boston played one of them without Tatum, Brown, Horford and Marcus Smart. They will meet again on March 30th with the top seed perhaps on the line.
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