Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:04 AM

Thursday's Playoff Essentials

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Playoff Results | Playoff Projections

Eastern Conference First Round - Game 6 - Celtics lead 3-2
Boston at Milwaukee (-4.5/200), TNT, 8:05 p.m. ET

If one could only guarantee that frustration gets channeled the right way, the Bucks would be the lock of the century in Thursday’s lone NBA playoff game. You can understand how even down 3-2 against the Celtics, seventh-seeded Milwaukee feels it is the better team in the series.

It lost Game 1 in overtime, blew a 20-point lead before surviving Game 4 and fell in Boston on Tuesday after getting hosed by a missed shot-clock violation that could’ve completely altered the next few possessions.

Mix in the fact that forward Giannis Antetokounmpo felt his Game 1 ejection in OT was unwarranted and clinched that loss, not to mention his lack of fourth-quarter involvement in Game 5 and you can surmise the Bucks will have their superstar leader engaged for this one.

Unless Milwaukee rallies in the series and wins the next two games, Thursday’s contest will be the final one at Bradley Center, home to the team since 1988. An emotionally charged atmosphere awaits the young Celtics, who are still looking for their first road win as they look to advance to an Eastern Conference semifinal series against Philadelphia where they will be an underdog despite opening the series at home as the highest-seeded team.

Boston knows it can’t look past the Bucks given how this series has unfolded. Without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward available, the Celtics are utilizing a collective approach to try and make the most of finishing second in the Eastern Conference this season. Marcus Smart returned for Game 4 to help aid the cause, while second-year wing Jaylen Brown, rookie forward Jayson Tatum and third-year point guard Terry Rozier have joined veteran center Al Horford as the team’s driving forces with their two max players sidelined.

Brad Stevens has been up to the challenge of making the most of his remaining pieces, a talented group light on playoff experience. He’s outcoached counterpart Joe Prunty, who probably needs to pull this series out to hang on to the gig he inherited on an interim basis when Jason Kidd was let go on Jan. 22.

The latest tweak saw a commitment to a smaller look with rookie forward Semi Ojeleye replacing burly 6-foot-10 center Aron Baynes in the starting lineup. He was placed on “Greek Freak” duty and fared extremely well, resulting in Antetokounmpo finishing with a series-low 10 field goal attempts. Baynes played a series-high 30 minutes in the 116-92 Game 3 blowout loss the Celtics suffered after the action shifted to Milwaukee, so it’s not hard to take the leap that Stevens and his staff will stick with going small now that Ojeleye has proven with worth and Smart is back in the mix.

A standout defender whose grit and versatility makes him an asset even when he’s not playing well on offense, Smart logged 25 minutes in his first game since breaking his thumb on March 11. He shot 2-for-7 and turned it over five times in a rusty showing, but he blocked a game-high three shots.

It’s no coincidence that from an efficiency standpoint, Milwaukee’s Game 5 effort was by far its worst this postseason, not to mention its lowest-scoring. The Bucks had averaged 108.3 points over the first four games of this series, which all went over the posted total. After books adjusted after the first two contests, moving the total from 199.5 to 204-plus for Games 3 and 4, Smart’s return forced the number to close at 202.5 on Tuesday and has it right back around 200 for Game 6.

The Bucks have a number of guys they need to make sure get going in addition to Anteokounmpo, who is averaging 25.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.0 assists in the series despite his Game 5 struggles. He’s shooting 60 percent from the field, so there’s a good chance he’ll be able to identify some counters for Ojeleye and Smart, the two new wrinkles he had to deal with on Tuesday.

Khris Middleton is averaging 25.0 points and shooting 57 percent from the field, which includes shooting 18-for-30 from 3-point range. Milwaukee can’t possibly ask for more from him from a consistency standpoint. He shot a series-worst 43 percent in Game 4, putting up a series-high 21 shots from the field, so you can expect he’ll also have some counters in place.

Center John Henson is likely to be sidelined once again due to a back issue that has kept him out of the last three contests after he played 37 minutes in the first two, so the Bucks will probably start Tyler Zeller once again before going small themselves. Jabari Parker has been the beneficiary of the extra minutes, averaging 16.7 points while shooting over 50 percent.

Betting on a team facing a must-win spot is always dicey and Chris David of is hesitant to lay the points with Milwaukee in Game 6.

“Outside of the blowout win in Game 3 at home, the Bucks haven’t performed well in the role of home favorites in the second-half of the season. Including that outcome, Milwaukee has gone 6-5 SU and more importantly 2-9 ATS,” said David, expanding on his position on the ‘dog. “If this line was shorter, I wouldn’t have as much issue with the Bucks but six points is a little too rich to lay and Boston has been a solid underdog this season and in the playoffs under Brad Stevens.”

The Bucks must get better play out of lead guards Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon, who combined to shoot 6-for-20 in Game 5, squandering opportunities that where there to be had since most of Boston’s defensive focus was on Antetokounmpo and Middleton. The ability of Rozier and Shane Larkin to be productive in the series, actually winning the matchup at the point, has helped swing the series in Boston’s favorite. For Milwaukee to win its third game of the series as a favorite, Bledsoe and Brogdon must improve. The Bucks are 7-1 straight up (5-3 ATS) in their last eight games as a favorite.

“Boston has gone 7-11 this season when catching points and while that’s nothing to boast about, a 12-6 record at the betting counter in those games shows you that they don’t lay down,” added VI’s David. “In the postseason, the Celtics are 4-11 overall as road underdogs during Stevens’ tenure and again a profitable 9-6 ATS.”

It’s a certainty Boston will be in action at home on Saturday night. Whether the Bucks are out there for a Game 7 or lamenting plays that made the difference in their elimination as they watch the Celtics host Philly depends entirely on making the most out of their opportunities tonight.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA or e-mail him at [email protected]

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