MILWAUKEE — Celtics-Bucks.
This is the series you’ve been waiting for.
And I do mean waiting.
When the Celtics finally take the Fiserv Forum floor Sunday afternoon to play the top-seeded Bucks, it will have been a week since the Green Team actually played a basketball game. The Bruins will have finished FOUR playoff games since the Celtics erased the Pacers last Sunday in Indianapolis. The Patriots will have made all their trades and selections in the three-day NFL Draft.
It should be worth the wait.
Celtics-Bucks is one of the NBA’s marquee matchups in these playoffs. The first round in the Eastern Conference produced four snoozefests (two sweeps and two 4-1s), but Milwaukee-Boston figures to be a long, combative series with plenty of star power.
Before we go any further, here’s a little tip for you Celtics fans: Resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to be seeing a lot of Giannis Antetokounmpo at the free throw line. This is not because the refs have it in for the Celtics. Do not listen to the words of Tommy Heinsohn, or any latter-day Johnny Mosts. There’s no need to call sports talk radio and cry about Giannis getting favorable treatment. No. The Greek Freak is going to be at the line all day because the Celtics have no one that can stop him legally in the paint. He is an NBA freight train and if he gets the ball going downhill it’s either 2 points or two free throws. Brad Stevens will throw Aron Baynes, Al Horford, and Semi Ojeleye at Giannis (too bad Marcus Smart, Jim Loscutoff, and Bob Brannum are not available). It will not be enough. Antetokounmpo is going to be the MVP of the NBA this year. He is the reason this series could be the end of the road for the frustrating, maddening 2018-19 Celtics.
Boston beat Milwaukee in a seven-game series last year, but that was when the Celtics had home-court advantage and played old-timey, team-above-self basketball. Those Celtics were the little engine that could, playing without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, and they dazzled us nightly with their heart and grit. Meanwhile, the young Bucks were coached by Joe Prunty — a nice guy who had no business coaching a team in the NBA playoffs. Advantage: Boston.
Everything is different now. Milwaukee has Mike Budenholzer, a man with four prior seasons of playoff experience who might wind up as the NBA’s Coach of the Year. The Bucks also have the MVP and a team that won more games than any team in the league this year. They won their four playoff games against the Pistons by an average of 23.8 points. They are deep and versatile and they have home court. They have everything except the knowledge of what it takes to win the big games. They are newbies.
The Celtics, as you all know, staggered through their 2018-19 regular season. They were preseason favorites to win the East, but got worse while the Bucks, Raptors, and Sixers all got better. Late in the year the Celtics assured us that they were saving themselves for the playoffs and that they could flip the switch in the postseason. Then they delivered on that promise against the Pacers.
Now we find out if these Celtics are a serious team or a ship of fools who tried to trick us into believing they could turn it around in April and May. Now we find out if Hayward is back to being the player he was in Utah. Now we find out if Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum can take another step toward playoff stardom. Now we find out if Playoff Kyrie is going to be better than Playoff Rondo or Playoff Bird.
Irving was off-the-charts good against the Pacers and he knows he can be the best player in this series. This is his time. He has put an enormous amount of pressure on himself and now we find out if he can deliver. Irving has already won an NBA championship (with Cleveland). These Bucks have not.
The Celtics plan to honor the legendary John Havlicek — who died Thursday in Florida at the age of 79 — by wearing a black stripe adorned with his No. 17 on their uniforms for the rest of these playoffs. Milwaukee is an appropriate place for Sunday’s unveiling of the patch. It was here that Havlicek was named series MVP when the Celtics beat the Bucks in Game 7 of the NBA Finals at the Mecca in 1974.
This series could be like that one. The 1974 Bucks were favored because they had a better regular-season record, they had home court, and they had the best player in the game — a tall kid named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
That didn’t stop Dave Cowens, Jo Jo White or Havlicek from beating the Bucks.
It was a showcase series.
Just like this one.
Worth the wait.