The path to the NBA Finals this spring is going to go through the Milwaukee Bucks one way or another. The dream scenario for the Boston Celtics according to one league source is for the Sixers and Bucks to face off in the second round in a 1 vs. 4/5 matchup that spares Boston from having to face both if they manage to make their way out of the first two rounds of the East playoffs themselves.
In order for that type of scenario to occur, a couple of things need to happen:
1. The Celtics need to be good enough to finish with the No. 2 or 3 seed in hopes of avoiding the Sixers in the first two rounds and staying out of the Milwaukee bracket in the second round.
2. They need to be good enough to beat the Sixers or Bucks in a seven-game series.
Beating both of those teams in a seven-game series in consecutive rounds feels like a tall task. Beating one of them won’t be easy either but is realistic after the first 40 games of the 2019-20 regular season. Outside of Philadelphia, there isn’t a team in the East that matches up better with Milwaukee 1 through 5 as evidenced by a gritty showing on Thursday night by the visitors in the second half of a back-to-back in a 128-123 defeat.
Without Jaylen Brown (sprained thumb), the Celtics rallied from 27 down and gave themselves a fighting chance in the final minute after a sensational performance from Kemba Walker (40 points, 11 rebounds). There was plenty of good (Marcus Smart: 24 points) and bad (Gordon Hayward: 1-of-10 FG) from the core which is bound to happen on back-to-backs from time to time. Hayward's play has been up-and-down of late but the odds remain fully in favor of him staying put.
Yet, the main difference in the game after the Celtics made things interesting in the second half wasn't Hayward: It came down to the benches. Milwaukee outscored Boston’s second unit by a 48-23 margin on the night, which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise with Smart and his 24 points being thrown into the starting five.
Yet, when you look at what the Celtics are going to need to take out the Bucks in a seven-game series right now without homecourt advantage, it’s hard to believe that they have the right personnel to deal with one of the most potent second units in the league, even when they are at full strength with Smart as a reserve.
George Hill (13 points) and Donte DiVincenzo (19 points) keyed a 17-3 run for the Bucks in the third quarter that pushed their lead back to 20 after the C’s starters had cut it to six points with four minutes remaining in the frame. A summary of key plays over that stretch involved the C’s bench players in the game (Javonte Green, Enes Kanter, Grant Williams)