The Celtics grabbed control of their conference semifinal against the top-seeded Bucks by winning the opening game in Milwaukee, but the Bucks have since reclaimed homecourt advantage by winning the next two games, setting up a pivotal Game 4 at TD Garden on Monday night.
Here are a few thoughts, observations, and nuggets about where this series stands:
■ Both the Bucks and the Celtics have played the first three games of this series without a starting guard. Boston’s Marcus Smart remains sidelined with an oblique tear and Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon is still recovering from a torn plantar fascia.
But there is a chance that both players could return for Game 4. Celtics coach Brad Stevens said that “all indications” are that Smart will take part in the team’s practice on Sunday, although he said there will probably not be any live drills in the session. Stevens said Smart could still complete some live work before or after the session, however. Smart was initially ruled out for 4-6 weeks after suffering the injury on April 7, and Sunday is the four-week mark.
Brogdon, meanwhile, had appeared closer to returning than Smart. He began taking part in five-on-five workouts about a week ago, but has still yet to be cleared. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer on Saturday had no update on Brogdon’s chances of playing on Monday, but he reiterated that there have been no setbacks.
Statistically speaking, Brogdon is the more valuable player of the two, averaging 15.6 points and 4.5 rebounds on 50.5 shooting overall 42.6 percent on 3-pointers. But it is clear that the Celtics are missing Smart’s intensity, physicality, and emotional leadership.
■ If the Celtics hope to advance, they need Jayson Tatum to start making 3-pointers. He is 0 for 8 from beyond the arc against the Bucks, including an 0 for 5 performance in Game 3. The most promising development on Friday was that he actually fired up a decent number of attempts.
His lack of confidence with his 3-point shot has been obvious throughout this season, as he frequently pump fakes or hesitates his way out of open looks and settles for contested mid-range jumpers instead.
After making 43.4 percent of his 3-pointers during his powerful rookie season that number dipped to 37.3 percent this year. He was 8 for 15 in the opening-round win over the Pacers, but the pressure and the stakes are higher in this series.
■ After going just 4 for 18 in the Celtics’ Game 2 loss to the Bucks, point guard Kyrie Irving said he had to do more to control the tempo and take advantage of opportunities when Milwaukee switched slower defenders onto him.
“That’s something like, I’ve just got to go by them,” he said.
Then Game 3 arrived, and Irving went just 8 for 22, and the Celtics were handed another loss, and Irving once again vowed to be different.
“From this point on I don’t think you’ll see another 8 for 22 or any missed layups or looking for the refs for calls or anything like that,” he said.
Bucks start Giannis Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, has consistently flashed his MVP form. When the Celtics struggled throughout the regular season, Irving was mostly unbothered, constantly insisting that he would be ready when the playoffs arrived. But this is his first time in the postseason as the primary player defenses are trying to stop.
During the playoffs, the Celtics have actually been slightly better with Irving off the court (+4.6 net rating) than on it (+2.3).
■ Based on net ratings, Al Horford has been by far Boston’s most valuable player during this postseason, and while that statistic can be fluky because it also takes into account the other nine players on the floor, this is one case where the impact has also been visible to anyone is watching closely.
The Celtics have outscored the Bucks by 7.2 points per 100 possessions with Horford on the court, and they have been outscored by 7.3 points per 100 possessions when Horford is on the bench.
■ The Celtics did not practice on Saturday. So how did Stevens recommend they spend the day?
“Rest, rehab, and breathe,” he said. “We’ll have plenty of opportunity tomorrow and Monday to meet and get ready for Game 4. We know what we need to do differently. It’s a good opportunity for everybody to take a deep breath. Sometimes, as you go through these playoff series, sometimes that can be the best thing you can do.”
■ Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, who has emerged as Toronto’s clear No. 2 option behind Kawhi Leonard, has been listed as doubtful for his team’s Game 4 matchup at Philadelphia on Sunday. The 76ers already hold a 2-1 lead in that series and would truly seize control with another win. The Celtics, of course, have had tremendous success against the 76ers, and if Philadelphia advances to the conference finals it would present a tremendous opportunity if Boston can get that far.