Last shots: Celtics 120, Bucks 106

Nineteen last shots for the 19 minutes played by Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon in Milwaukee’s 120-106 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 2 of the first round of the NBA Playoffs.

1. This wasn’t how things were supposed to go this year for the Milwaukee Bucks, but it’s shaping up to be an all too familiar ending.

2. Disappointment.

3. The Bucks wanted a first round matchup with the Boston Celtics. So too did the Miami Heat and Washington Wizards. The three teams that finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture were hoping to matchup with the injury-riddled Celtics because it would give the best chance to advance to the next round of the playoffs, even as the No. 7 seed.

4. Those three teams, the Bucks included, were supposed to have the edge over the Celtics. They were supposed to be able to out-talent Boston while Kyrie Irving, Gordon Heyward, and Marcus Smart were all shelved due to injury.

5. On paper, Milwaukee has a talent advantage. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the series, and has played as such through the first two games. Khris Middleton has played as well as expected, if not better. They haven’t been the problem.

6. Jabari Parker has been largely unplayable in the first two games of this series. That’s a big issue. On Tuesday night he finished without scoring in 10 minutes and only took two shots. The past two games certainly will not be on the highlight tape Parker wishes for teams to see as he hits restricted free agency this summer.

7. Eric Bledsoe had another rough game. After playing poorly to the tune of nine points on 4-of-12 shooting on Sunday afternoon, he followed it up with 12 points on 5-of-13 shooting Tuesday. In both games he’s been thoroughly outplayed by Celtics backup point guard Terry Rozier. The case can be made that Bledsoe was outplayed by Boston’s Shane Larkin on Tuesday night as well.

8. Larkin, who is on his fourth team in five years and spent the 2016-17 season overseas, averaged less than 15 minutes per game in 54 games this year. He and Rozier on contracts for less than $4 million this year combined, while Bledsoe made $15 million.

9. To compound things after the game, when Bledsoe was asked by a reporter if he was taking the success of Rozier personally. A very fair question considering Rozier’s success and Bledsoe’s struggles.

10. “Who?” Bledsoe questioned the reporter. The reporter restated Rozier’s name.

11. “I don’t know who the f*** that is,” Bledsoe responded.

12. That’s not a great look to not respect the 23-year-old that has been the much better player the past two games. It’s even worse when the fact that Bledsoe was unable to stay within 10 feet of Rozier in the final seconds of regulation in Game 1, watching from a distance as Rozier nailed a wide-open 3-pointer to put the Celtics up by three. Bledsoe was lucky that Middleton’s game-saving shot saved him some embarrassment.

13. Bledsoe’s poor play highlights a saying that’s rampant at times across basketball. Never trust the Bucks.

14. Many picked Milwaukee to win the series due to the Celtics injury issues and the talent advantage the Bucks hold. Everyone that did trusted the Bucks, which looks like a giant mistake two games in.

15. Obviously, the series isn’t over, and the Bucks will have an opportunity to return serve on their homecourt and send things back to Boston. Role players, which the Celtics are mostly comprised of at this point, typically play better at home than on the road.

16. Making this a long series isn’t something that’s out of the realm of possibility. But after the past few nights, it’s difficult to be confident in Milwaukee’s ability to do so. In the long history of the Celtics they have never lost a series in which they held a 2-0 lead. What about the performance of the Bucks in Game 2 should give any confidence that this will be the first time?

17. It’s hard to find an answer to that question. Antetokounmpo has been the best player in the series, sure, and Middleton’s play above his regular season level has been encouraging. But the Bucks can’t win without one of Parker or Bledsoe stepping up, and after the first two games it’s hard to have confidence in that happening.

18. Then again, role players tend to play better at home.

19. The Bucks take on the Celtics in Game 3 on Friday at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Tip-off is at 8:30 p.m. CT. Talk to you then.

Last shots: Celtics 113, Bucks 107 (OT)

Eighteen last shots for the 18 minutes played by Bucks guard Jason Terry in Milwaukee’s 113-107 overtime loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the first round.

1. This is a loss that stings right now for the Bucks, as every playoff loss will. It was a game they led at halftime, and during parts of overtime. Playoff wins are tough to earn and heading into Game 2 assured of no worse than a split in Boston would have been big for the psyche of this team.

2. In the fourth quarter the Bucks locked down on the defensive end, only to see the Celtics bail themselves out with offensive rebounds or a make on an incredibly difficult shot by Marcus Morris or Terry Rozier.

3. It’s tough to swallow, but it happens.

4. The Bucks have more talent than this version of the Boston Celtics. That was evident on Sunday afternoon. Also evident was the fact that the Celtics play smarter and more together than the Bucks, and that’s a battle that’s not close.

5. Boston, purely from a talent standpoint, isn’t at the same level as the Bucks are. With star guards Kyrie Irving and Gordon Heyward unavailable due to injury the Celtics don’t have a player close to the level of Antetokounmpo. Al Horford is a terrific basketball player, and no discredit to him, but he’s not at the level of Antetokounmpo.

6. On the flip-side, Milwaukee, purely from a schematic standpoint, isn’t at the same level as the Celtics, and that’s a problem for them.

7. Inside the game itself, the Bucks outplayed the Celtics down the stretch. The defense was stifling, big shots were made by a cast of players, and even mistakes were overcome.

8. In the fourth quarter the Bucks outscored Boston 33-29 to tie things up, and the Celtics had to work for every point they earned. The Celtics were able to secure four offensive rebounds, turning them into eight second chance points.

9. Aside from those hustle stats, the Celtics nailed tough shots near the end of the shot-clock. Sometimes, there’s nothing more that can be done except for tipping your cap and moving on. There were a few of those instances down the stretch.

10. Rozier and Morris both came up huge, and they were big reasons as to why the Celtics won Game 1. That pair combined for 41 points. On the bright side for Milwaukee that’s something that isn’t likely sustainable for the Celtics. Rozier hit plenty of big shots down the stretch for the Celtics, including a 3-pointer to give Boston the lead with 0.5 seconds remaining in regulation.

11. For the Bucks, Middleton was huge. He finished with 31 points, eight rebounds, six assists, and a huge game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer in regulation to send the game to overtime. Middleton barely beat the clock, but his shot was pure as could be.

12. Middleton’s shot came 10 seconds after Brogdon knocked down a 3-pointer to tie the game at 96. On the following possession Rozier was being guarded by Bledsoe, shook free of him, and knocked down a wide-open 3-pointer to give the Celtics a 99-96 lead. After that, Middleton hit his shot to send things to overtime.

13. As for Antetokounmpo, he was almost everything the Bucks needed to go on the road and steal Game 1. He finished with 35 points, 13 rebounds, and seven assists before fouling out in overtime.

14. Fouling out was the issue, once Antetokounmpo was called for his fifth foul his demeanor changed. The constant attack on the rim ceased, as it seemed he was worried about a premature exit from the game by virtue of an offensive foul. It was a legitimate worry of his, as his fourth foul of the game was a charge with 1:33 left in regulation.

15. While Middleton and Antetokounmpo were mostly good, combining for 66 points, Bledsoe largely was not. The veteran with playoff experience seemed as if the stage was too big for him. He finished with nine points on 4-for-12 shooting, had five turnovers, and fouled out in overtime as well.

16. Bledsoe, simply put, needs to be better than he was on Sunday for the Bucks to win the series. If Rozier, Shane Larkin, and other members of the Celtics backcourt are outplaying him – by a wide margin – things are going to turn out poorly for the Bucks.

17. It’s easy to look at this loss as a bad sign. Digging out of a 0-1 hole isn’t the easiest task, but it’s not the most difficult, either. Boston was supposed to win on its home floor. If the Bucks return to Milwaukee with one victory in their pocket – regardless of how it’s earned – things will be looking up for them.

18. Game 2 is on Tuesday night in Boston at the TD Garden. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. CT.

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.

NBA playoff predictions

After a regular season to remember in the NBA, the playoffs finally begin. We at The Zone took a look at each of the eight first round playoff matchups and gave our predictions.

Enjoy!

No. 1 Toronto Raptors vs No. 8 Washington Wizards

| The Raptors had their best season in franchise history this year, finishing with 59 wins and at the top of the conference for the first time ever. Toronto changed the style of play from previous seasons in hopes of being more competitive in the playoffs.

| Washington was one of the NBA’s more disappointing teams this season, partly because star guard John Wall missed half the season due to a knee surgery. They’ve got more talent than the average No. 8 seed but have been unable to put everything together.

| Toronto has struggled in the playoffs previously, as the Raptors have notoriously lost nine consecutive series opening games. It wouldn’t come as a shock if that trend continued, and the Wizards have a punchers chance in this series, but I think it’s one that ultimately goes the Raptors way in six games.

| Raptors in five | Zach Heilprin

| Raptors in six – Joe Miller, Nelson Raisbeck

| Raptors in seven – Ebo Thoreson

No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers vs No. 6 Miami Heat

| The 76ers are the youngest group in the playoffs, with most of their key players lacking playoff experience of any sort. Joel Embiid is going to be out for the beginning of the series due to facial surgery to repair a fracture suffered late in the season. Ben Simmons is in his first year on the court, and first overall draft pick Markelle Fultz missed most of the season due to injury. With all that being said, the Sixers enter the playoffs as winners of 16 straight games and are arguably the second-best team in the Eastern Conference at the moment.

| Miami has no star power. The Heat run a great system offensively and play terrific defense. Erik Spolestra is a great coach in this league and is a big reason as to why the Heat are in the position they’re currently in. Miami is going to be able to dirty this series up and make things difficult for the Sixers. Things typically slow down in the playoffs and that’s what Miami is going to try and do.

| Miami is probably the scariest first round matchup for Philadelphia because of how well they play defense. With Embiid’s status unknown, the Heat have a puncher’s chance in this series, and it helps Miami’s cause that the Sixers have little postseason experience. I think the Heat make this really interesting but not enough. Sixers in seven.

| Philadelphia in four – Thorseon

| Philadelphia in five | Heilprin

| Philadelphia in six –Raisbeck, Miller

No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers vs No. 5 Indiana Pacers

| The Cleveland Cavaliers enter the playoffs with the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference, but make no mistake, they’re the favorites to reach the Finals for the fourth consecutive season. LeBron James is playing at one of the highest levels of his career, and the Cavs enter the playoffs having won 10 of their last 12, with the last loss being a throwaway game to the Knicks on the regular season’s final day.

| The Indiana Pacers were expected to be on the outside looking in of the playoffs this season after this summer’s trade of Paul George for Victor Oladipo. Instead of that being the case, Oladipo turned into a player that deserves to be named to an All-NBA team this season and the Pacers find themselves as the No. 5 seed. Indiana had a terrific season and overachieved everyone’s expectations.

| Typically, the matchup between the fourth and fifth place teams is the one regarded as a toss-up. That’s not the case here. The Cavs are playing their best basketball of the season right now, and James hasn’t lost a single first round game since 2012. While that streak may very well end, James also has never been on a team that lost in the first round of the playoffs. This version of the Cavaliers won’t be the first. Cleveland in five.

| Cavs in four – Thoreson

| Cavs in five | Heilprin

| Cleveland in six – Raisbeck

| Cavs in seven – Miller

No. 1 Houston Rockets vs No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves

| Houston wasn’t a hot pick to finish with the best record in the NBA at the beginning of the season as the Golden State Warriors were coming off their second championship in three seasons. But the Rockets came out on fire this season, overtook the Warriors for the best record on the final night before the all-star break, and never looked back.

| On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Minnesota Timberwolves needed to win a game on the final night of the regular season over the Denver Nuggets to earn the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Minnesota was sitting comfortably in playoff position for much of the year, however star guard Jimmy Butler needed knee surgery and missed 17 games.

| The key thing to watch in this series is the disparity between 3-point shooting by these two teams. Minnesota is dead last in the NBA in number of 3s made during the regular season and Houston is first in the league with 1,256 made 3s. The Wolves made 658 this year. You can do whatever math you want, but that adds up the Rockets winning this series in four games.

| Rockets in five – Miller, Thoreson, Heilprin

| Rockets in four – Raisbeck

No. 2 Golden State Warriors vs No. 7 San Antonio Spurs

| For the second consecutive year the NBA will be giving us a series between the Warriors and Spurs, and for the second straight year it almost promises to be a disappointment. This year the Warriors have been one of the best teams in the NBA, but nowhere near reaching full-potential (what an insane sentence to type, but it’s undeniably true). Stars Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green have all missed time due to injury. But the latter three will all be healthy enough to participate in this series, giving the Warriors the clear talent edge.

| The Spurs have now made the playoffs for 21 consecutive seasons, which is remarkable to think about. This year was one of the more impressive runs because all-star forward Kawhi Leonard has only played in nine games this year due to a quad injury and an all-around weird situation. Gregg Popovich reaffirmed that he’s the best coach in the league with what he was able to accomplish with this team this season, but this is a tough draw for them.

| The Warriors just have too much talent. The Spurs will be able to grab a game, maybe two, but an upset here would be an all-timer. Golden State in five.

| Warriors in five – Thoreson, Miller, Heilprin

| Warriors in six – Raisbeck

No. 3 Portland vs No. 6 New Orleans

| Portland got a great year from MVP candidate Damian Lillard, an emerging star in CJ McCollum, and a late season run that solidified them as a playoff team towards the end of the season. The Blazers didn’t close the season as strong as they would’ve liked, but they finished in third place regardless.

| New Orleans is a great story to be able to find a way to reach the playoffs after a devastating injury to center DeMarcus Cousins in late January that ended his season. The Pelicans changed the style they played, ramping up their pace over the last two and a half months of the season to finish first in that category in the NBA. Oh, yeah, and they have the best player in this series in Anthony Davis. He’s relatively unstoppable on both ends, and has come into his own and an undeniable top five talent in the NBA. Guard Jrue Holiday is also one of the more underrated in the NBA.

| The best method I use to try and predict series winners is judging which team has two of the three best players in the series. Portland has Lillard and McCollum, both of whom are better than Holiday of the Pelicans. With that being said, Davis is undoubtedly the best, and Holiday the fourth best. I think Davis has a monster series here. New Orleans in seven.

| Pelicans in six – Thoreson, Miller

| Pelicans in seven – Raisbeck

| Trailblazers in seven | Heilprin

No. 4 Oklahoma City Thunder vs No. 5 Utah Jazz

| The Thunder have the edge in talent here, but the fit hasn’t always been great between Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony. Oklahoma City is an excellent team when Anthony is treated as a third, or even fourth best player behind Steven Adams. Things go sour when Anthony reverts back to playing a similar iso-heavy style to what propelled the Knicks for so many years.

| The Jazz are a team that wasn’t expected to be a playoff competitor, and early on it looked like they weren’t going to be one. The Jazz were propelled by Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell and Defensive Player of the Year favorite Rudy Gobert. Utah finished the season on a 29-6 tear to reach the playoffs after starting 18-29. Mitchell is the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring since Anthony back in 2003-04 with the Denver Nuggets.

| Mitchell has been great as a rookie, but I think that the playoff atmosphere may be a bit too much for him. The Thunder have the talent, including the two best players in the series. I think it’s closer than it should be on paper, but the Thunder win in six.

| Thunder in six – Thoreson, Heilprin

| Thunder in seven – Miller

| Jazz in seven – Raisbeck

No. 2 Boston Celtics vs No. 7 Milwaukee Bucks

| The Celtics enter the postseason in a bit of an odd situation. While Boston owns the No. 2 seed, they’re not the typical championship threat that is usually the owner of such a seeding. Boston lost all-star guard Kyrie Irving for the season with a knee injury on March 11 and has been relying on rookie forward Jayson Tatum as the primary scoring threat since. The best way to say this is Boston is vulnerable in the first round, far more vulnerable than any No. 2 seed in recent memory. The last No. 2 seed to lose in the first round of the playoffs was Dallas in 2010. It hasn’t happened in the Eastern Conference since 1998.

| The Milwaukee Bucks, like the Washington Wizards, have been one of the more frustrating teams to watch in the NBA this season. Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the 10 best players in the NBA, and Milwaukee does have talented pieces in Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and Jabari Parker, but the Bucks have struggled to piece it all together and reach full potential.

| For being the No. 7 seed, Milwaukee couldn’t ask for a better situation to try and advance past the first round for the first time since 2001. I think it happens. Bucks in six, for the culture. More on this in Sunday’s series preview.

| Bucks in six – Thoreson, Miller, Heilprin

| Celtics in five – Raisbeck

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 clinch No. 7 seed

The Milwaukee Bucks clinched the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs after the NBA action finished on Wednesday night.

The Bucks lost on the road to the Philadelphia 76ers 130-95 on the road, the Miami Heat defeated the Toronto Raptors at home, and the Washington Wizards lost to the Orlando Magic.

The Bucks finish the season tied for sixth place with Miami but fall to seventh by virtue of losing the head-to-head matchup 3-0 this season.

In the first round the Bucks will open up against the Boston Celtics, in Boston.

This was seen as the most favorable matchup for the Bucks considering that Celtics all-star guard Kyrie Irving is out for the playoffs due to a knee surgery. Boston will also be without guard Marcus Smart for most or all of the first round due to a thumb injury.

Tying for sixth means that the fate of Milwaukee’s 2018 first round draft pick is now up in the air. The Bucks and Heat will take place in a drawing held by the NBA on Friday, April 13 to determine which team will hold the 16th pick and with team will hold the 17th pick. If the Bucks win the drawing and receive the 16th pick, it will be sent to Phoenix to complete the trade that sent Eric Bledsoe to Milwaukee earlier in the season. If the Bucks lose the drawing and receive the 17th pick it will remain with Milwaukee.

The series will begin on Sunday, April 15 in Boston at 12 p.m. CT. The schedule for the entire series is as follows, with all times listed as central:

Game 1: 4/15, Milwaukee at Boston, 12 p.m. on TNT

Game 2: 4/17, Milwaukee at Boston, 7 p.m. on TNT

Game 3: 4/20, Boston at Milwaukee, 8:30 p.m. on ESPN

Game 4: 4/22, Boston at Milwaukee, 12 p.m. on ABC

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

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

Game 7*: 2/28, Milwaukee at Boston, TBD

*if necessary

Playoff scenarios for the Milwaukee Bucks

With just one game remaining in the season, the Milwaukee Bucks have already clinched a place in the NBA Playoffs that are set to begin on Saturday. While that aspect is settled, the seed the Bucks will claim, and the opponent Milwaukee will face is still undecided.

Milwaukee can find itself in either sixth, seventh, or eighth place in the Eastern Conference when the season ends Wednesday night.

Here are the possibilities for the Bucks in terms of seeding and playoff opponents:

No. 6 seed

The Bucks can finish in sixth place simply by winning the final game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night. This is the simplest scenario to explain. Beat the Sixers and claim the No. 6 seed.

That’s not the only way that Milwaukee can finish in sixth, however. If the Miami Heat lose against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night AND the Washington Wizards lose their final game of the season to the Orlando Magic,  then the Bucks finish in sixth regardless of the result against Philadelphia.

As for the opponent there are a couple of possibilities. If the Bucks beat Philadelphia and the Cleveland Cavaliers defeat the New York Knicks on Wednesday it would set up a first round series between Milwaukee and Cleveland. If the Cavaliers were to lose that game, Philadelphia would clinch the No. 3 seed and the Bucks would open up the playoffs against the Sixers.

Cleveland and Philadelphia are the only two possible teams that can finish in third place.

No. 7 seed/No. 8 seed

Things start to get confusing here, but it begins with a Milwaukee loss and a Miami win over the Raptors. Miami and Milwaukee would finish the regular season tied, with the Heat holding the tiebreaker.

This is also dependent on the result Washington’s final two games as well. The Wizards need to finish 1-1 or 0-2 in the remaining two games for the Bucks to finish in seventh place. If all three teams finish tied with the same record (44-38) then the Bucks would be the No. 8 seed.

This is also dependent on what Washington does it its final game on Wednesday night. The Wizards defeated the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night to move into a tie with the Miami Heat for seventh, one game behind the Bucks. In order for the Bucks to finish with the No. 7 seed, the Heat and Wizards need to have the opposite result on Wednesday, paired with a Milwaukee loss to Philadelphia. If the Bucks lose and both Miami and Washington WIN, Milwaukee will finish as the No. 8 seed. If the Bucks lose and both Miami and Washington LOSE, Milwaukee will finish as the No. 6 seed.

The opponents in this case are easy to figure out. The Toronto Raptors have clinched the best record in the conference, making them the No. 1 seed and will face the No. 8 seed. Boston has clinched the No. 2 seed and will face the No. 7 seed.

Draft pick

The one caveat to this entire situation is the fact that the Bucks potentially will lose their 2018 first-round draft pick.

For that to happen the Bucks would need to lose the game against Philadelphia on Wednesday night. If Milwaukee finishes as the No. 6 seed, then the pick will be 17th overall and stay in Milwaukee.

This is part of the trade that was made with the Phoenix Suns to acquire Eric Bledsoe earlier this season. The pick is protected if it falls between 1-10 and 17-30 in the 2018 NBA Draft. If it falls between 11-16 it will be sent to Phoenix.

Winning the game against Philadelphia would be the easiest solution for Milwaukee. A loss to the Sixers puts things in chance as far as the pick goes. If Milwaukee finishes tied with Miami, Washington, or both, then there will be a drawing held on Friday, April 13, to determine the draft order of those three teams. If Milwaukee “wins” that draw and picks 15th (or 16th), the pick is gone. Lastly, if the Bucks “lose” the draw and pick 17th then the pick stays, but it’s something that is entirely out of their control.

What happens if the pick stays in Milwaukee this year?

If the pick lands at 17th and the Bucks keep it, then there’s a chance it is conveyed to Phoenix next year. The 2019 first round pick is protected 1-3 and 17-30, making it unlikely – barring more regression from Milwaukee – that it would be sent to Phoenix then. The Bucks would have to finish in a similar positon next year as this season. It’s something that’s certainly possible but would be another disappointment of a season.

The likeliest scenario – and the one Milwaukee planned on occurring when the trade was made – is that the pick is sent to Phoenix in 2020. In 2020 the pick is protected only if it falls inside of the top seven picks, other than that it will be sent to the Suns.

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.