No. 2 Boston Celtics vs No. 7 Milwaukee Bucks: Series preview

Tale of the tape

No. 2 Boston (55-27) vs No. 7 Milwaukee (44-38)

2017-18 head-to-head matchups: 2-2

10/18/17 | Milwaukee def Boston 108-100

10/26/17 – Boston def Milwaukee 96-89

12/4/17 – Boston def Milwaukee 111-100

4/3/18 – Milwaukee def Boston 106-102

It’s hard to take much away from any of the first three matchups between these two teams. Boston will be without guard Kyrie Irving for the entire series and guard Marcus Smart for at least the first six games. Both of those key players for Boston played in the first three games of the season-series, but not the fourth.

Jason Kidd was also the coach for Milwaukee in the first three meetings, but not the fourth, and guard Eric Bledsoe was a member of the Phoenix Suns for the first two, and Greg Monroe was a member of the Bucks for the first two, a member of the Suns when the teams met the third time, and wearing a Boston uniform for the final matchup.

So, yeah, quite a bit has changed for these two teams since the first battle in October.

Key players to watch

Giannis Antetokounmpo – This one is obvious. As Antetokounmpo goes, so go the Bucks. He’s going to be the best player on the floor in every game the Bucks play in this series. If Antetokounmpo struggles in this series the Bucks have no chance, even if Boston is shorthanded.

Al Horford – The Celtics will look at Horford to be a big piece offensively with Kyrie Irving shelved for the entirety of the playoffs. Horford has been consistently good this season, even if his performance has flown under the radar this year. Horford has been a key in the matchups against Milwaukee during the regular season. However, a considerable amount of the damage he did came with Thon Maker defending him. It would be a surprise to see Maker on the floor much, if at all, with the game’s result undecided.

X-Factors

Jabari Parker – He’s been looking more comfortable on the floor recently as he returned from the knee injury that robbed him of the end of the season last year and the first few months this season. If Parker can provide a punch offensively to take some pressure off Antetokounmpo and show a pulse defensively then the Bucks will be in good shape. It’s always interested to see how players respond to their first taste of the playoffs, and this marks the first time Parker has been healthy enough to play in a postseason game.

Jayson Tatum – If Kyrie Irving had missed the entire season, the world may be talking about Tatum as a serious contender for the Rookie of the Year. Since Irving was shut down for the season on March 11, Tatum has scored 17.1 points per game which has been second on the Celtics in that stretch. He’s also defended at a relatively high level for a rookie. Like Parker, Game 1 on Sunday will be his first taste of playoff action. He’ll need to play as well as he did in the regular season, or better, for the Celtics to have a chance in this series.

Coaching

Brad Stevens – During the regular season the Celtics overachieved given everything that the team had to deal with. The injury to star forward Gordon Heyward on opening night, Irving missing as much time as he did, and relying on as many rookies as the Celtics have points towards this team finishing around the 40-win mark. Stevens is a tremendous coach and deserves great consideration for Coach of the Year for the job he did this year. If not for him, Boston wouldn’t have a shot in this series.

Joe Prunty – With Jason Kidd being fired in January, Prunty took over the team on an interim basis. He’ll get a chance to interview for the job following the season, but the sense around the league is that – barring something unforeseen – someone else will be the coach for Milwaukee next season. He’s done an OK job with the team as he’s had to balance injuries and easing Parker back into the game flow.

Schedule

Game 1: Milwaukee @ Boston, 4/15, 12 p.m. CT, TNT

Game 2: Milwaukee @ Boston, 4/17, 7 p.m. CT, TNT

Game 3: Boston @ Milwaukee, 4/20, 8:30 p.m. CT, ESPN

Game 4: Boston @ Milwaukee, 4/22, 12 p.m. CT, ABC

Game 5*: Milwaukee @ Boston, 4/24, TBD, TBD

Game 6*: Boston @ Milwaukee, 4/26, TBD, TBD

Game 7*: Milwaukee @ Boston, 4/28, TBD, TNT

*denotes if necessary

Prediction

If Boston were healthy, with a squad including Kyrie Irving and Gordon Heyward, this series wouldn’t be close. Unfortunately for them, they don’t have that.

The Bucks have two of the three best players in the series in Middleton and Antetokounmpo, and teams that can boast the advantage in that area rarely lose the series. While the Celtics have the advantage in coaching, the Bucks own it in talent.

Milwaukee fans have been waiting since May 20, 2001 to watch their team win a playoff series again. After nearly 17 years they’ll stop waiting on April 26.

Bucks in six.

Bucks and Celtics roster comparison

When the NBA playoffs begin, talent is often the deciding factor in the outcome of the series. That sounds silly, right? Every team that qualifies for the playoffs is obviously talented, but more often than not star power determines the winner.

One theory, which I believe to be true is that the team that has two (or more) of the three best players in the series comes out victorious roughly 90 percent of the time. Believing in that theory has led me to rank the players in groups from the bottom of each roster to the very best.

If these guys are seeing significant minutes, their team is in trouble

| D.J. Wilson | Milwaukee
| Thon Maker | MIL
| Jonathan Gibson | Boston
| Abdel Nader | BOS
| Guerschon Yabusele | BOS

These five make up the bottom of each roster. While Maker occasionally gets minutes, it’s probably not a good sign for Milwaukee if he’s on the court for more than 10 minutes in a game. The hope for Bucks fans is that he plays some garbage time minutes and that’s it.

Playable, but less is probably more

| Semi Ojeleye | BOS
| Brandon Jennings | MIL
| Matthrew Dellavedova | MIL
| Jason Terry | MIL
| Shabazz Muhammad | MIL
| Shane Larkin | BOS

This group of players will all likely see the floor in meaningful minutes, but they aren’t players that should be depended on to win a game. An outburst from any of these guys would be unexpected, but certainly welcome.

Rotational players that will likely see their minutes cut

| Aron Baynes | BOS
| Sterling Brown | MIL
| Tyler Zeller | MIL

Those three will all see the floor, and have been part of the rotation for their respective teams during the regular season. During the playoffs rotations are typical cut down and key players are asked to play heavier minutes. Those minutes need to come from somewhere, and it’s likely that these three see their minutes cut due to that.

Rotational players

| Greg Monroe | BOS
| Marcus Smart (inj)* | BOS
| John Henson | MIL
| Tony Snell | MIL
| Terry Rozier III | BOS
| Malcolm Brogdon | MIL
| Marcus Morris | BOS

This list is filled with guys that play meaningful minutes, or even start for their respective teams. The better they play, the better chance of winning their team has. None of them are going to carry the load, or be asked to, but the more they do, the better.

*Smart is out due to injury but possibly may return for a potential Game 7 if necessary, which is why he is listed. If not due to injury he would likely find himself higher up on the list, too.

Key pieces

| Jaylen Brown | MIL
| Jabari Parker | MIL
| Jayson Tatum | BOS
| Eric Bledsoe | MIL

At times, these players will be asked to lead their teams. The team that wins the series is going to likely win this battle. Brown and Tatum are two younger guys, in their second and first years, respectively. Bledsoe and Parker have more experience, although Parker has never played in the playoffs and Bledsoe has never been in a key role in a playoff series.

Top three players

| Khris Middleton – MIL
| Al Horford – BOS
| Giannis Antetokounmpo – MIL

This is the category that bodes well for Milwaukee. If Boston had a fully-healthy roster this would be far from the case. But with the Celtics missing both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Heyward they only land one player in the top three.

The gap between Antetokounmpo and Horford for the first and second spot is relatively considerable as well. Antetokounmpo is one of the 10 best players in the NBA and Horford is probably somewhere between 25 and 30. With that being said Horford is criminally underrated as a player. He’s really good, but he’s not someone that a team can heavily lean on to win a playoff series, in my opinion.

Middleton has been inconsistent this season for Milwaukee. There’s no doubting that. But there have been times when he has been able to shine, scoring 30 or more points nine times, including two games of 40 or more this year.

The Bucks having two of the three best players in the series – and four of the top six – is crucial to them being picked by many as the winner of this matchup. If the Bucks are going to win, they’ll need Middleton to play as well as he did during the regular season, and Antetokounmpo to prove that he’s a top 10 player in the world.

NBA awards ballot

The end of the 2017-18 NBA season has finally arrived as the playoffs are set to begin on Saturday afternoon. This season has been nothing sort of outstanding from the race for the best record in the NBA between the Rockets, Raptors, and Warriors, to the race for the best odds at the No. 1 pick in this summer’s draft between the Suns, Grizzles, and Hawks.

There have been underachievers – hello, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards – overachievers – looking at you, Utah and Miami – and everything in between. The season has seen terrific storylines and traumatic injuries. We’ve seen budding stars emerge from the league, and old stars restate claim at the top. The season was one of the better ones in recent memory, and it’s time to cast some (imaginary) votes for the NBA individual awards.

*Disclaimer: I do not have an official vote in any of these categories. This is all for fun*

Most Valuable Player

Until three weeks ago I was firmly in the camp that it was James Harden’s time to win the MVP. He’s had a tremendous season, led Houston to the best record in the NBA, and solidified Houston as a true contender to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy this June.

The last few weeks haven’t mattered to Harden and the Rockets, as they’ve been in firm control of the best record in the NBA for some time. That’s not a knock on Harden, and isn’t being used against him.

Three weeks ago, it looked as if the race to be the representative of the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals was as wide-open as it has been since arguably 2010.

Then, the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, kicked things into high-gear. Now, it would come as a surprise if any of the other seven playoff teams in the East made it to the Finals.

James has had one of the best seasons of his career this season. That’s no small feat considering this is the 15th year in the NBA for James and he turned 33 in December. James is simultaneous breaking “the oldest to…” and “the youngest to…” records at the same time. That’s not necessarily something that factors into this discussion, but it’s something that’s simply astonishing.

Let’s be honest, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been a mess the entire season. It feels as if they’ve had three different seasons over the course of the 82-game slate. Everything points at them being a contender for the first pick in the draft, rather than a championship.

Well, everything except for James.

This year James is averaging career-highs in assists and rebounds – again, his 15th season – while maintaining the highest scoring average he’s had since his final year of his first stint in Cleveland. He’s averaging 27.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 9.2 assists on the season while shooting over 54 percent from the field.

That’s never once been done in the history of the NBA. That deserves a recognition.

The other area that I look at in the favor of James is that this offseason, the Cavaliers lost their second-best player in Kyrie Irving, and the Rockets added an all-NBA player in Chris Paul to their team.

Irving hasn’t been replaced on the Cavaliers, and Paul is an upgrade over nearly every point guard in the league.

The greatest player of this generation – possibly all-time – is having arguably his best season ever. There’s no questioning that he’s the best in the world, and in my mind he’s the most valuable as well.

I’m going to admit, it’s likely that the award goes to Harden. He’s had a terrific season and most years would deserve it, but I can’t pass on what James has been able to do this season.

The rest

First and second place are easy, the rest of the voting isn’t as cut and dry. My top five would look as follows:

LeBron James
James Harden
Anthony Davis
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Damian Lillard

Davis has carried the Pelicans to the playoffs in the absence of DeMarcus Cousins in the second half of the season. He’s been incredible offensively and will likely finish in the top three of the Defensive Player of the Year voting as well.

I’ve been settled on the top three for quite some time, but there’s been fluctuation over the fourth and fifth spots on my ballot over some time. I think that the end of the season has decided it for me, just as it did in the race between first and second.

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s case

Antetokounmpo is the only reason the Bucks are a playoff team. I’ve had the opportunity to watch him up close all season long, and without him the Bucks would be a lottery team, and a bad one at that. He’s been terrific all season and deserves to finish in the top five, especially after the Bucks closed the season out strong.

Hurting Antetokounmpo is the fact that his team, the Milwaukee Bucks, finished in seventh place in the Eastern Conference. Without him the Bucks would likely be fighting for the worst record in the NBA, but instead they’re a playoff team. The common thought about the career path of Antetokounmpo is that he’s a future MVP. While he had a terrific year this year and deserves to finish in the top five, this isn’t the year he wins the award for the first time, and it shouldn’t be.

A top five finish would be an accomplishment for Antetokounmpo, and he should be thought of as a front-runner for the award next season.

Lillard was going to finish in fourth place before the Blazers struggled to end the season. With two weeks to go I had him penciled in there, but the close of Milwaukee paired with Portland’s struggles and his injury dropped him down to fifth.

Close but just missed

Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozen

Defensive Player of the Year

This one took some thinking because the top two players have both missed a significant amount of time due to injuries, but there’s no denying Rudy Gobert’s defensive impact on the Utah Jazz.

With him in, the Jazz have one of the best, if not the best defense in the league. Without him, they’re a lottery team.

Joel Embiid has been absolutely terrific as well for Philadelphia, and very well could win this award one day, but this one deservingly goes to Gobert.

Here’s my top three:

Rudy Gobert
Joel Embiid
Anthony Davis

Coach of the Year

The Utah Jazz have no business being a playoff team. Their leading scorer is a rookie, they lost their franchise player in the offseason as Gordon Heyward left in free agency, and they started the season 19-28.

Since then they’ve gone 29-6 and finished in fifth place in the Western Conference. The Jazz have been one of the best teams in the NBA since the end of January. Quin Snyder has done a masterful job with this group and earns my vote in a very crowded field this year.

Here’s my top three:

Quin Snyder
Brett Brown
Dwane Casey

Close but just missed

Brad Stevens, Gregg Popovich

Most Improved Player

This is possibly the one category that may be the easiest to decide for end of season awards this year. Victor Oladipo is on his third team in three seasons and turned into a star out of nowhere for the Indiana Pacers.

This year the Pacers were expected to be a lottery team, instead they’re the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. That’s thanks in large part to the play of Oladipo. After struggling to find his fit alongside Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook last season he was traded to Indiana in exchange for Paul George. Oladipo has thrived beyond anyone’s expectations for the Pacers. He may win this one unanimously.

Here’s my top three:

Victor Oladipo
Steven Adams
Fred VanVleet

Rookie of the Year

This is an award that has sparked heated debate across the league. The top two is evidently clear in Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell, but that’s where agreements seem to stop by opposing sides.

Simmons has been the better player this year. He’s averaging over 16 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists for the year. That’s unprecedented, and if he were a “normal” rookie then he would likely win this award in a landslide.

The problem with his case to some is that he was drafted in 2016, not 2017, but missed the entire 2016-17 season due to injury. While this is his first season on the floor, it’s his second year around professional basketball.

I understand that argument, but I don’t agree with it. By definition, if a player has never played an NBA game entering the season then he’s a rookie. Simmons meets that criteria, therefore he’s the Rookie of the Year in my opinion.

That doesn’t downplay what Mitchell has been able to do for the Jazz. He’s the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring since Carmelo Anthony did so with Denver in 2003-04. Mitchell  has been a huge reason as to why the Jazz have been able to turn things around.

He just hasn’t been as good as Simmons this season.

Both players are future stars, potentially even future MVPs, but Simmons was the better rookie.

My top three:

Ben Simmons
Donovan Mitchell
Jayson Tatum

Sixth Man of the Year

Lou Williams of the LA Clippers helped keep LA in the playoff race until the first week of April after the franchise traded away Blake Griffin. He finished in the top 20 in scoring in the NBA coming off the bench, and at times was the best player the Clippers had this year. He earns my vote

My top three:

Lou Williams
Wayne Ellington
The Toronto Raptors Bench Unit

Milwaukee Bucks defeat Magic 102-86

For the second consecutive game the Milwaukee Bucks were forced to play without all-star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. For the second straight game the Bucks found a way to win without him. Shabazz Muhammad scored 22 points off the bench and guard Eric Bledsoe scored 20 points in the 102-86 win over the Magic Monday night.

Milwaukee struggled to gain separation from the Magic until the end of the third quarter, and finally was able to pull away in the fourth.

Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker also reached double-figures in scoring with 18 and 16 points, respectively.

This marked the last time that Milwaukee will ever play a regular season game at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, with a new arena set to open next season.

The win moves the Bucks temporarily into sixth place in the Eastern Conference with one game remaining in the regular season. Milwaukee plays Philadelphia on Wednesday night on the road, where a win would clinch the No. 6 seed in the playoffs and means the Bucks would retain their first round draft pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Last shots: Nets 119, Bucks 111

MILWAUKEE – Twenty-four last shots for the 24 free throws attempted by the Bucks in Milwaukee’s 119-111 loss at home to the Brooklyn Nets.

1. This was a missed opportunity for the Milwaukee Bucks. There’s no other way to say it.

2. The Nets stole this one by knocking down 19 3-pointers on the night. Six players knocked down two or more 3s, including Allen Crabbe who buried 5-of-10 from deep. Some of the shots Crabbe knocked down were contested looks where nothing more could have been done, but others were open looks.

3. Nets guard D’Angelo Russell set the tone for Brooklyn early. He had 13 points in the first quarter, including three 3s. Russell had his third highest scoring half of the season with 18 points in the opening 24 minutes.

4. Offensively for the Bucks, forward Khris Middleton had the best night. He finished with 31 points on 9-of-14 shooting from the floor. Middleton also knocked down all 11 free throws he took. He was far from the issue.

5. Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker both struggled from the floor. Each of them posted double-figures in scoring, but they were a combined 13-of-42 shooting, including 0-for-7 behind the 3-point line.

6. “It’s a part of the game,” Parker said of his poor shooting performance. “I’m trying to learn just to play through it and just keep playing the game.

7. “You just keep shooting the good ones. You can’t force it, but you have to keep shooting the good ones,” Parker added on his struggles.

8. The Bucks trailed by as many as 11 points throughout the night. Credit is due for them fighting back and eventually taking a lead in the fourth quarter. This is one of the few games this season that Brooklyn has closed out well.

9. Crabbe knocked down a pair of 3s after the game was tied at 105 with 3:10 left in regulation. That was part of an 8-0 run by Brooklyn that put the game out of reach for Milwaukee. The Bucks only field goal the rest of the way was a layup by Antetokounmpo with 15.6 seconds left while the game was out of reach.

10. The loss drops Milwaukee to 42-37 on the season. The Bucks remain tied with the Washington Wizards at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

11. With the Kyrie Irving-less Boston Celtics likely to finish as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, the No. 7 seed should be the goal for Milwaukee.

12. “Of course, we want to get the best seed that we can,” Antetokounmpo said following the loss.

13. The highest seed the Bucks can mathematically reach is No. 6, but that isn’t the “best seed” that Antetokounmpo is referring too. Milwaukee wants to matchup with the Celtics in the playoffs. The Miami Heat and Washington Wizards do as well. While no one is likely to come out and say that they’d like to willingly square off with a 50-plus win team in the playoffs, Boston is vulnerable.

14. The Celtics are a terrific regular season team and have been for the past few seasons but have struggled to find victories in the postseason. They’re different in personnel this year, but now Boston doesn’t have Irving for the remainder of the season and playoffs. That’s a huge blow to Boston and swings the door for a potential first round upset wide open. Whichever team – Milwaukee, Washington, or Miami – finishes in seventh place is going to have a significantly better chance of advancing to the other round than the other two.

15. Whichever team finishes in eighth place will take on the Toronto Raptors, the likely No. 1 seed. The Raptors have been suspect in the playoffs at times in the past, but they’re currently healthy and talented. Whichever team finishes with the No. 6 seed will face either Cleveland or Philadelphia. The 76ers are a young, talented bunch, and peaking at the right time. The Cavaliers have the best player in the world in LeBron James.

16. The last time James lost a single game in the first round was on May 6, 2012 when he was a member of the Miami Heat and they lost Game 4 of the first round to the New York Knicks. Antetokounmpo was 17 years old, and nearly 18 months from stepping on an NBA court for the first time. Is it possible the Bucks could break that streak? Sure. Is there much of a chance they win that series? No.

17. That’s what made Thursday night such a missed opportunity for Milwaukee. The Cavaliers did the Bucks a favor by defeating the Washington Wizards 119-115, opening the door to move into a two-team tie for the No. 6 seed with the Miami Heat. The Heat do own the tiebreaker, which would slide Milwaukee to No. 7, exactly where the Bucks should want to be.

18. As for the rest of the season, Milwaukee has to face the New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, and Philadelphia 76ers to finish up the regular season. The Wizards remaining three games are against the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, and Orlando Magic. The Miami Heat have three games remaining as well, they’ll face the Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Toronto Raptors.

19. Making things more difficult for the Bucks is the fact that they do not own any tiebreakers in this scenario. They lost the season series to the Heat giving Miami the tiebreaker by virtue of head-to-head record. The Bucks did spilt the season series with Washington, but the second tiebreaker in this scenario is record against Eastern Conference opponents. The Wizards currently have a two-game lead in that category. With both teams facing three Eastern Conference opponents to finish the season, the Wizards will hold that tiebreaker if the records of Milwaukee and Washington match.

20. As for the three-way tiebreaker, the Bucks would be on the short-end of that as well. The way three way ties are broken is with a cumulative head-to-head record of games against the two other opponents. The Heat hold a 5-2 record, the Wizards went 4-4 against Miami and Milwaukee, and the Bucks finished 2-5.

21. This means if those three teams all finished with the same record Miami would be the No. 6 seed, the Wizards would finish at No. 7, and the Bucks would be the No. 8 seed.

22. That’s what makes Thursday night’s loss such a missed opportunity. A win would have placed them tied with Miami, and at the No. 7 seed. Instead, the Bucks are in a tough spot with just three games left.

23. All three teams have relatively easy schedules, but things depend on whether or not other teams are resting players as they prepare for the playoffs. All the Bucks can do is attempt to win the remaining games on the schedule and hope for the best.

24. The Milwaukee Bucks are back in action on Saturday night in New York at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks.

Milwaukee Bucks beat shorthanded Celtics 106-102

The Milwaukee Bucks were quickly able to put the puzzling loss to the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night in the rearview mirror on Tuesday. Milwaukee knocked off the shorthanded Boston Celtics in the team’s return to the Bradley Center following a four-game road trip.

All-star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo scored a game-high 29 points and made a tremendous block of Boston’s Jaylen Brown in the fourth quarter to help preserve the win. Khris Middleton added in 20 points and nine assists to help the Bucks claim victory.

The Celtics entered the game as winners of the past six games, but were without Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier III.

The win for Milwaukee moves the Bucks into a tie for sixth-place in the Eastern Conference. Due to tie-breaking scenarios, they would be the No. 8 seed in the playoffs if the season ended today. Milwaukee is tied with the Washington Wizards and Miami Heat.

The Bucks are back in action on Thursday night for the second-to-last regular season at the BMO Harris Bradley Center against the Brooklyn Nets. Tip-off is set for 7pm CT.

Bucks open up road trip with loss to Clippers

The Milwaukee Bucks held a two-point advantage when the fourth quarter started against the Clippers on Tuesday night. LA outscored Milwaukee 27-16 the rest of the way to hand the Bucks a loss by a final score of 105-98.

All-star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was the game’s high-scorer with 26 points to go along with nine rebounds, seven assists, and five blocks in an all-around effort. Milwaukee’s problem was shutting down the Clippers from behind the 3-point arc. When the two teams squared off last week in Milwaukee the Clippers knocked down 15 3s. On Tuesday night the Clippers repeated that effort, finishing 15-of-28 shooting from deep.

After another poor start to the game, the Bucks were able to climb back in the third quarter, outscoring the Clippers by 10 to erase a six-point halftime deficit. Much has been made about the slow starts for Milwaukee, but Tuesday was a poor finish that did the Bucks in.

Tobias Harris had a team-high 19 points for the Clippers and center DeAndre Jordan scored 12 points and recorded 16 rebounds in the victory. Harris was one of four LA players to knock down three or more 3-pointers in the game.

Milwaukee falls from seventh place in the Eastern Conference to eighth due to not only its loss, but also Miami’s win over Cleveland on Tuesday. The Bucks are back in action on Thursday night in Oakland, Calif. against the Golden State Warriors.

Last shots: Bucks 106, Spurs 103

MILWAUKEE | Eighteen last shots for the 18 free throws attempted by Milwaukee in its 106-103 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday afternoon.

1. The team that wore the cream-colored jerseys Sunday afternoon at the BMO Harris Bradley Center was the incarnation of the Milwaukee Bucks that many expected to see this season.

2. To this point, it’s fair to say that the Bucks have underachieved. Milwaukee is in a battle with the Miami Heat for the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. Many thought that this season the Bucks would be competing for home court advantage in the first round, but that ship has all but sailed. Milwaukee trails fourth-place Philadelphia by three-and-a-half games with nine games remaining. While that dream isn’t officially dead, it’s on life support, and not looking good.

3. On Sunday the Bucks fired on all cylinders as they held off a late surge by the San Antonio Spurs to cap off a much-needed victory. The Bucks entered the game losers of three of the last five contests, and had not been playing well, even in the victories against Chicago and Atlanta, two of the NBA’s bottom-feeder teams this season.

4. Sunday was the opposite of many things that had plagued the Bucks recently. Milwaukee got off to a fast start, building a 13-point first quarter lead. As of late, the Bucks have struggled to start games. Milwaukee trailed by double-digits in each of the past two games in the first quarter. It’s a trend that had not been going Milwaukee’s way for quite some time.

5. Milwaukee led 27-15 after the first quarter before allowing the Spurs to storm back in the second quarter to head into halftime tied at 47. San Antonio settled down after an abysmal shooting performance in the opening period. It was bound to happen, after all, the Spurs are perpetually a contender for a reason.

6. The third quarter was similar to the first, with the Bucks outscoring San Antonio 41-28 to take a 13-point lead into the fourth quarter. Eric Bledsoe was outstanding in the third for the Bucks. He had 11 of his 23 points on 4-of-5 shooting in the quarter. Bledsoe has been one of the most explosive players on the court for much of the season, but it hasn’t always translated to positive outcomes. With that being said, on Sunday it did.

7. The fourth quarter saw the Bucks have to hold off the Spurs. No one would have expected San Antonio to go away quietly, and they didn’t. The Spurs were down by 15 points with 8:02 left in the game, but closed things out on a 22-10 run, it just wasn’t enough. The Spurs had an opportunity to tie the game as time expired, but Khris Middleton got a piece of Dejonte Murray’s 3-pointer with 3.7 seconds left.

8. All-star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was able to play at less than 100 percent after he suffered a sprained right ankle on Wednesday night against the Clippers. He missed Friday’s game in Chicago but felt strong enough to play on Sunday.

9. “It felt good. It’s not 100 percent, but I felt like I could still help my teammates, and that’s what I did tonight,” Antetokounmpo said after the game. “Hopefully moving forward I can feel a lot better.”

10. Antetokounmpo finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists in the win. He was 9-of-16 shooting, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range. When Antetokounmpo is knocking down 3s, he’s unstoppable. The problem with that is he’s a 29.5 percent shooter from deep.

11. Milwaukee will need to continue to get team efforts like this one down the stretch of the season as they fight for playoff positioning. The best-case scenario for the Bucks would be to land as the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Toronto Raptors will likely finish with the best record in the conference and the Boston Celtics will finish second.

12. The Raptors have been the best team in the conference all year, and a team that would be hard for the Bucks to matchup with. The Boston Celtics are an entirely different story, however. Celtics guard Kyrie Irving underwent a knee procedure on Saturday, leaving his availability for the start of the playoffs in doubt. He’s expected to return to basketball activity in three-to-six weeks according to the team. The first round of the playoffs begins on April 14th.

13. If Irving were to be healthy, things would be very difficult in the series for Milwaukee. Taking away Boston’s best player for all, or some of the series, would improve Milwaukee’s chances exponentially. That becomes a winnable series for the Bucks if Irving is absent. If Kyrie is 100 percent healthy and playing, things look rather bleak for Milwaukee. While he very well may play in that series, he’s unlikely to be 100 percent.

14. Milwaukee’s win combined with Miami’s overtime loss to the Indiana Pacers pushed the Bucks into the No. 7 seed for the time being. They lead Miami by a half-game with nine games left to play. The Bucks do need to finish a full game ahead of the Heat to secure that place in the conference due to Miami holding the tiebreaker over Milwaukee by virtue of sweeping the season series 3-0.

15. Milwaukee now heads out west for a four-game road trip beginning with the LA Clippers on Tuesday night. They’ll then head to Oakland for a matchup with the Warriors before returning to Los Angeles to face the Lakers and finishing up the trip with a date with Denver on April 1st.

16. This will be a very tough trip for Milwaukee, finishing it 2-2 would be considered a success. The Clippers just ran the Bucks off the floor in Milwaukee but are comparable to the Bucks in terms of talent. The game against the Warriors is much more winnable after two-time MVP Stephen Curry sprained the MCL in his left knee this week. He will not play against the Bucks, and the status for all-stars Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson is unknown.

17. Again, things will be tough out west, but if the Bucks team that showed up on Sunday makes the trip, then success is possible. If that’s not the case, Milwaukee will struggle.

18. Tip-off against the Clippers is set for 9 p.m. CT on Tuesday night in Los Angeles.

Last shots: Clippers 127, Bucks 120

MILWAUKEE | Twenty last shots for the 20 point effort by Bucks forward Jabari Parker in Milwaukee’s 127-120 loss to the LA Clippers on Wednesday night.

1. When All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo exited the game after twisting his right ankle with four minutes remaining in the second quarter things were looking up for Milwaukee. They were trailing by eight at the time, but had cut a 16-point LA lead in half.

2. Antetokounmpo limped off and back to the locker room and did not return. Milwaukee made another run at the start of the third quarter on an 8-0 run to come within two points of the Clippers but could not get past that. LA quickly pushed the lead back to up to 15 points.

3. The Bucks put forth a strong fourth quarter and did have an opportunity to steal the game from the Clippers. Milwaukee cut the lead to four points with 1:21 remaining in regulation on a Thon Maker dunk. It was set up by a steal from Khris Middleton after he hit put in a layup. After Maker’s dunk LA coach Doc Rivers immediately called for timeout.

4. Middleton finished with a team-high 23 points on the night.

5. Out of the timeout, Rivers’ son, Austin, knocked down his fifth 3-pointer of the night to put the Clippers back in front by seven points. It was a dagger right in front of the Milwaukee bench.

6. That 3-pointer by Rivers was LA’s 15th and final of the contest. They outscored Milwaukee 45-24 from deep. That’s an area that haunted the Bucks in the loss on Monday night against Cleveland as well. They were outscored 45-24 from behind the arc in that game, as well.

7. “Honestly, we’ve just got to be able to play against them,” forward Jabari Parker said about the team’s 3-point defense. “That’s not specific defense, that’s just trying to make it hard for them on offense.”

8. Parker did play a season-high in minutes, partly due to the second half absence of Antetokounmpo. He had 20 points and six rebounds in 30 minutes off the bench for Milwaukee.

9. Not only did the Bucks struggle to defend the 3-point line in the second half, where the Clippers were 9-of-15, but they failed to defend the paint in the first half. LA’s DeAndre Jordan had a monstorous first quarter for the Clippers. He had a double-double before the game’s first 12 minutes were over, having 14 points and 10 rebounds in that period alone. He finished with 25 points and 22 rebounds.

10. In that first quarter the Bucks allowed 24 of LA’s 38 points to come in the paint. They were also outrebounded 17 to 6. They put more emphasis on the pereimteter early on, which led to the opportunities for Jordan. The second half saw those priorities flipped, which led to a combined 31 points on 10-of-16 shooting by Rivers and 6th Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams.

11. Lately, the Bucks haven’t done much to make things hard offensively for opponents. In six of the last seven games Milwaukee’s opponent has scored 110 points or more. The lone exception was the game against the Memphis Grizzles, when Milwaukee allowed 103 points.

12. Over that stretch the Bucks have allowed an average of 117 points per game. That’s a number that’s far to high for a team with a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Antetokounmpo. The Bucks should not be allowing as many points as they are. There’s no excuse for it.

13. In fact, the only teams that they’ve played in the past seven games that have offenses in the top ten in the NBA in terms of offensive rating are Houston, Cleveland, and LA. Milwaukee allowed 110 points or more to Atlanta (26th), Orlando (25th), and New York (22nd). That needs to stop, even if Milwaukee was able to outscore two of those three teams.

14. Let’s state the obvious: Milwaukee is not going to win games against quality competition without Antetokounmpo. Few teams are able to survive without the player that they’re built around. There may be exceptions from time to time on short-term instances. Over the long-haul stars win in the NBA, and that’s what Antetokounmpo is, and even that hasn’t been enough lately for Milwaukee.

15. After the game, interim head coach Joe Prunty did not have an official update on the status of Antetokounmpo. He was seen walking out of the locker room under his own power, although there was an obvious limp as he favored his right leg. For what it’s worth, Antetokounmpo also had a puppy in his hands when he left. Dogs tend to make people happier, but to my knowledge they do not have the power to heal sprained ankles.

16. Luckily for the Bucks, they still hold a five-game lead over ninth-place Detroit for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Each team has 11 games left remaining, however the tiebreaker is not yet settled. The two teams split the regular season series, with each team winning twice. The next step in the tiebreaker procedure is record within the division, and the Pistons currently lead the Bucks by two games in that category.

17. It would take a monumental collapse for the Bucks to miss out on the playoffs. The magic number for Milwaukee is currently six. That means any combination of Milwaukee wins and Detroit losses that equal six would clinch the eight-seed for the Bucks.

18. The Bucks are a near-lock for the playoffs, but the recent play and the question of the injury to Antetokounmpo certainly bring the question up, and understandably so.

19. Tonight’s loss hurts Milwaukee more in terms of seeding positioning as the Miami Heat moved 1.5 games ahead of them. That’s not an insurmountable lead with 11 games remaining, but Miami does own the tiebreaker over Milwaukee. The Heat defeated the Bucks all three times the teams squared off this season. That means that the Bucks would have to finish a full game ahead of Miami in order to finish in seventh place. With the tiebreaker factored in, Miami’s magic number to clinch seventh place in the Eastern Conference is nine.

20. The Bucks are back in action on Friday night in Chicago, Ill. against the Bulls at the United Center. Chicago is currently 24-47 on the season and has lost three in a row.

Bucks fall to Cavaliers 124-117

All-star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 37 points and collected 11 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to outshine LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

James finished with 40 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists in Cleveland’s 124-117 win over Milwaukee on Monday night.

The Bucks found themselves within single-digits at the start of the fourth quarter while James was resting on the bench for the Cavaliers. Cleveland’s second-unit opened up the final period on a 12-5 run to take a 15-point advantage right after James checked back in and put the game out of reach.

Milwaukee made a run late to close the score within six, but it was too little too late for the Bucks. The Cavaliers hit their free throws at the end of the game to ensure that Milwaukee’s comeback did not make a difference in the result.

Forward Khris Middleton scored 30 points for Milwaukee on 5-of-9 shooting from 3-point range, but the Bucks were ultimately outscored 45-24 from behind the arc. Milwaukee was also out-rebounded by Cleveland 42-32, including 12 offensive rebounds by the Cavaliers leading to 19 second-chance points.

The loss dropped Milwaukee to 37-33 on the season. The Bucks are now in eighth place in the Eastern Conference after the Miami Heat defeated the Denver Nuggets in double-overtime to take a half-game lead over the Bucks for seventh place.