A crucial Eastern Conference showdown out of the NBA’s All-Star Break will pit talented offenses against one another in Milwaukee.
And while the visiting Boston Celtics and host Milwaukee Bucks are each adept at holding opposing scores under their averages, the defensive styles of the clubs couldn’t be more different.
The opening point spread gives the Bucks – the club with the best regular-season record in the NBA at 43 wins and 14 losses – just a (-5.5) favorite’s margin for a tip-off at 8 PM EST on Thursday night.
The teams have met twice already in 2018-19 and have split the contests.
Bundle of Bucks
While Milwaukee’s MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo is having the most productive season of his young career, coach Mike Budenholzer’s team is succeeding at both ends of the court with a gaggle of highly-productive stars and role players.
PG Eric Bledsoe has been all over the floor on offense and defense, averaging 5.4 assists and a team-high 1.5 steals per game to add to his double-figure scoring average.
The Bucks also made a splash prior to the trade deadline by acquiring 3-point specialist Nikola Mirotic from the New Orleans Pelicans in a 3-team deal. The 6’10” forward gives Milwaukee an additional threat from the outside which could help the offense become even more dynamic. The Bucks are already tied for 2nd in the NBA with 13.1 made 3’s per contest.
Meanwhile, it’s still Antetokounmpo who worries opponents the most. The Greek Freak is averaging 27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 6 assists per game, is enjoying the best shooting percentage of his career at 58.1, and is getting to the foul stripe more than ever.
Ballin’ in Beantown
Kyrie Irving has been terrific for Boston upon returning from knee surgery. The point guard has averaged 23.6 points and 6.9 assists per game in 2018-19. Irving has been nagged by minor injuries, but played a very healthy 25 minutes in the NBA All-Star Game and appears poised to start on Thursday night.
20-year-old Jayson Tatum is having stellar sophomore campaign. The talented youngster is averaging 16.5 points and 6.3 rebounds as the only player to start every game for Boston in 2018-19.
Gordon Hayward’s struggles with injury are also well-documented, but Hayward has posted an impressive string of solid recent performances. The 6’8” forward scored at a 20+ ppg clip in a trio of games leading up to the break. His presence – and healthy minutes – are probably keeping the Las Vegas spread below (+7) or (+8) for the visitors…at least for now.
The Dynamics of Defense
The Bucks take pride in their transition defense and also defend furiously in the pain. Milwaukee’s aggressive and smothering unit tops the league in FG % allowed at just 43% counting dunks, lay-ups, and easy garbage-time jumpers. Fast-break points come at a premium against the Bucks, who are giving up less than 10 points per contest in transition.
But the smothering inside defense and backcourt hustle comes at a price. Budenholzer’s cagers retreat quickly into a methodical system which allows clubs to hurl bombs from the 3-point line. Sometimes the shots go in. Milwaukee is giving up an NBA-worst 12.7 treys per game and recently allowed Paul George of Oklahoma City to go 8-of-12 from beyond the arc in a 112-108 loss to the Thunder.
Boston takes an opposite approach that focuses on strong perimeter defense. The Celtics’ are among the very best in the NBA at defending the 3-pointer, allowing opponents to shoot just 34% from downtown. The club is also forcing a bounty of turnovers. Beantown ranks 3rd in the NBA with 8.8 steals per game.
Celtics at Bucks: Our Point Spread Prediction
While Boston’s ability to cause chaos and bad looks for opposing scorers is unmatched, the setting could make all the difference on Thursday. Free of hostile noise at the Garden, the home-standing Bucks should be able to force turnovers of their own and punish Boston with inside buckets while drawing plenty of fouls.
Look for Milwaukee to take a 2-1 season series lead and cover the point spread.
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