MILWAUKEE -- The road back towards the top of the Eastern Conference standings is going to be a long one for these Celtics, but it has to start somewhere. A matchup with the best team in the NBA on Thursday night is a fitting place to begin.
The nationally televised showdown will be the third and final contest between the Celtics and Bucks during the regular season with 24 games remaining on the calendar for Boston. The possibility of catching Milwaukee (6.5 games back) or Toronto (5.5 games back) for a top-two seed with so little time left in the regular season is a long shot at best, but it’ll be a no-shot without wins on the road this week over both teams. The Bucks will clinch the season tiebreaker with a victory tonight, while the Raptors will assure themselves of a season split with Boston if they pull out a win on Tuesday.
The Celtics have fared quite well against elite competition in the East this year (7-3 versus top four teams), but only one of those wins have come on the road (at Philadelphia), a reality that’s reflective of this team’s road woes (14-13) all year. They’ve beaten just two teams with records over .500 in the past three months, putting extra pressure on themselves now to step up their game against elite competition with a reduced margin of error in the standings. Five of their next six opponents on the road will have .500 plus records.
That particular schedule quirk could even make securing the No. 3 seed a potential challenge in the next two months, especially since consistency has been a big issue for this group all year long. They’ve made strides on the road lately (winners of four straight) but this group still has not won two consecutive games on a road trip since back in October.
On Thursday night, the work begins with the Bucks, who have added a new piece to their mix in Nikola Mirotic that will make life defending them even tougher for Boston, particularly with Aron Baynes (bruised foot) out and Gordon Hayward (twisted ankle) likely sidelined.
“I think a lot like what you’ve seen so far with their efficiency with Ilyasova,” Brad Stevens said of the impact of Mirotic. “It’s very similar. Both those guys are excellent standstill shooters and can make tough threes. We’ve seen Mirotic—some of the threes he’s hit against us in the recent past, that game in New Orleans earlier this year when he went nuts—he can shoot off screens, he can catch it in transition. He can shoot it in a number of different ways. But he and Ilyasova are both really crafty. They can put the ball on the floor. They can get to the line. They have different ways they can score and so it’s just another body that can do that. Their additions here midseason, when you think about not only him, but George Hill, I think are really good ones for how they want to do things.”
One of the few weaknesses the Bucks have had has been their outside shooting (34.9 percent from 3) and Mirotic’s addition will help them address that issue immediately while keeping the floor spread around Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Milwaukee’s guards (Eric Bledsoe, George Hill) have been a bit underwhelming from deep all year so it will be interesting to see how heavily they are leaned on versus the sharpshooters in the frontcourt for Milwaukee against the Celtics.
The one silver lining from Hayward’s injury is