The Wizards, Bucks and Heat all expressed some desire publicly to finish in seventh-place in the Eastern Conference standings and draw a first round matchup against the Boston Celtics. The Bucks got their wish and are easily the most likely underdogs (+145) to advance, according to the oddsmakers.
But the Celtics have read the press clippings. They are battle-tested, well-coached and still have the home court advantage. It’s never a cakewalk in Boston, which is why the Celtics are still modest favorites in Game 1, despite all the negative attention surrounding the state of their team.
The Golden State Warriors come into the playoffs having looked utterly disinterested in the final month of the regular season; teams like the Washington and Oklahoma City have been inconsistent all season long; yet, Boston, for reasons strictly out of its control, is the team the largest majority of the public has written off.
On one hand, it feels like Boston has too many injuries to overcome to get to the Finals, or even the Conference Finals. On the other hand, the Celtics beat good competition without Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis. They certainly weren’t supposed to be where they are now without Gordon Hayward this season.
The Celtics also have a favorable draw, going up against Milwaukee in the first round and potentially Philadelphia in the second, if the 76ers can get by the Heat without Joel Embiid. If Boston can avoid Toronto and Cleveland until it plays one in the Conference Finals, circumstances can change. Irving won’t be back, but Smart will and who knows what the competition will look like. People forget that we’re still a month away from the Conference Finals and players’ health situations will change between now and then.
The Bucks will prove formidable, however. They took Toronto to seven games last season as underdogs and are finally healthy, though just barely.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has been dealing with chronic knee soreness all season. It’s clear to me that he isn’t going to get better; it’s simply a matter of how much he can handle. Milwaukee did well to get him some rest down the stretch but will his knee start flaring up after Game 1, Game 2, or Game 3? Will he play all seven games (if the series goes the distance)? If so, will he play big minutes? And most importantly, if so, will he play effectively? Boston has bodies to throw at him with Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris. The Greek Freak’s health is crucial to the Bucks’ chances.
Then there is Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova, who both came back in the final game of the regular season. Neither is a great shooter but they’re the best the Bucks have, aside from Khris Middleton. More importantly, they’re both winners. If those two are healthy, I like Milwaukee.
Honestly, I’m not sure what we will get in this series as far as the sides go. I tend to lean Boston because of the home court and because of its identity, whereas Milwaukee has more of an identity crisis. The Celtics seem like the safer pick but there’s no way I’m willing to lay -165 on them.
What I do think we’ll see in Game 1 is that neither team will score efficiently; the pace will be relatively slow; and that the oddsmakers will realize they can’t post totals in the 200s for any of the remaining games. Neither team is lethal offensively and both are going to take a while to feel the other out in Game 1, which is why I’m on the under.
Free Pick: Under 202