Game Preview: Celtics at Bucks

BOSTON – It has been a busy couple of weeks for the Boston Celtics, and the schedule won’t allow them to have a leisurely Sunday. The Celtics (45-15) are in Milwaukee tonight to take on the struggling Bucks (23-37) at 9 p.m., a game that will be broadcast on ESPN.

These two teams haven’t met since Boston’s 105-103 victory in the TD Garden back on Nov. 3. The Celtics have run wild on the Eastern Conference since then, but the Bucks have struggled mightily and are fading quickly out of the playoff race.

Boston enters tonight’s game riding a four-game winning streak and hasn’t fallen to an opponent since its newest acquisitions have become available to play. Jeff Green, who was the headline acquisition for Boston at the trade deadline, had his breakout performance Friday night against the Warriors when he dropped in 21 points off of the bench. His play, coupled with solid minutes from Nenad Krstic at the center position, have helped the Celtics continue to roll despite a dramatic overhaul of their second unit.

Meanwhile, the Bucks were quiet at the deadline and their fortunes haven’t changed for the better. Milwaukee has won only three of its last 15 games and has fallen three games behind the Indiana Pacers for the final playoff spot in the East.

After heading into the season as a hot pick to ascend up the conference standings, the Bucks have regressed for several reasons.

Second-year point guard Brandon Jennings’ production has dropped off from his impressive rookie campaign, as his 3-point shooting percentage has dropped from 37.4 percent last season to 32.3 percent this season and his assist per game average has dropped a full assist down to 4.7 per game.

In addition to Jennings’ mediocre play, Milwaukee has also been hit with the injury bug. Two of the team’s top big men, Andrew Bogut and Ersan Ilyasova, have been out of the lineup for an extended period of time and it doesn’t sound as if they’ll be available for tonight’s game. When those two players are not on the floor for Milwaukee, the team loses the league’s leading shot blocker in Bogut and a combined 21.9 PPG and 17.5 RPG.

Despite the probable absence of those two players, Doc Rivers said on Saturday that his team has to prepare as if the Bucks will be healthy for tonight’s game.

“Hell, we don't know who's playing for them, they don't know who's playing for us," said Rivers. "It's just one of those games where both teams probably have to do more prep work, because we're not sure.”

While the Bucks may be missing some rebounding and shot blocking from Bogut and Ilyasova, they’re probably more concerned with the scoring that those players won’t be bringing to the court. Milwaukee ranks dead last in the NBA in points (91.4 PPG), field goal percentage (42.3 percent) and assists (18.1 APG), and it becomes even more offensively challenged when two of its most talented players are riding the pine. Those two players have both been on the bench for the past three games and the Bucks have not scored more than 92 points in any of those contests.

The offense is worse without Bogut and Ilyasova, but that doesn’t mask the fact that the Bucks’ ability to score is anemic even with them. Both of those players were available in the first matchup between these two teams and they combined for 36 points, but the Bucks still shot just 41.9 percent from the field. Somehow, despite that poor shooting performance, Milwaukee hung around and made the game go down to the wire.

The Celtics didn’t struggle offensively in the least bit, as Paul Pierce and Ray Allen scored 28 and 23 points apiece, while Rajon Rondo racked up 17 points and 15 assists. The reasons Milwaukee was able to hang around were bench scoring, which the Bucks won by a count of 38-19, and its 31 free throw attempts.

Those are two factors that the Celtics will be aiming to change tonight, particularly with the recent additions of Green, Krstic and Troy Murphy. Those three will be called on for big minutes against the Bucks, and if they deliver the way they did Friday night in the Garden, Boston should roll on to its fifth straight victory.

Banged Up Bucks

We already covered the fact that Bogut and Ilyasova probably won’t be available for the Bucks, but let’s take delve deeper into what that means.

Bogut is a 7-footer who blocks shots (he’s first in the league), rebounds (he’s fifth in the league) and can score in the post, while Ilyasova is a long 6-foot-10 player who can shoot from the perimeter and provides great energy for his squad. When both of them aren’t available, Scott Skiles has chosen to go with rookie Larry Sanders at center and second-year forward Jon Brockman at power forward. Those two players combine to average only 6.2 PPG and 5.8 RPG this season.

It’s clearly a substantial drop off, and the Celtics have to be excited about taking advantage of it. The ball will be fed into the post to guys like Kevin Garnett and Krstic, and the C’s will have an opportunity to go small if they choose by playing Green at power forward. Either way, Boston will have an advantage in the paint, and they should be able to exploit it.

Delfino Is Stepping Up

With two important players on the sideline for Milwaukee, someone has to step up and attempt to carry the load. That man has been Carlos Delfino, and although he scored only three points against the Suns on Friday night, he has been Milwaukee’s best player of late.

He has scored at least 12 points in six of his past eight games, and that includes two 20-point performances. He just notched a double-double against the Pistons on Tuesday and filled up the stat sheet in general with his 16 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and four steals. He also grabbed nine boards on Friday night despite his inability to score against the Suns.

Boston will need to keep an eye on Delfino tonight, because he’s a player who can catch fire at any moment. The Bucks will likely lean on him for both scoring and rebounding, but the C’s certainly possess the ability to limit him in both of those categories.

Defending Hybrid Wings

One of the reasons the Bucks might be such a poor offensive team is because they don’t have a true shooting guard in their rotation. All of their perimeter players who aren’t point guards are hybrid wing players, meaning they aren’t known as shooting guards more than small forwards, or the other way around.

The perimeter starters alongside Jennings are Delfino and John Salmons, and the top reserve is Corey Maggette. All of those players have the ability to score in bunches, but none are shooting the ball above average this season. Delfino and Salmons, in fact, are having terrible shooting seasons as they’re making only 37.3 percent and 39.0 percent of their shots, respectively. Maggette is having a decent shooting year at 45.1 percent, but he isn’t getting enough shot attempts – he’s fourth on the team in that category – to help carry the team.

That trio of hybrids is very different from what the Celtics typically defend, and it’s possible that it could cause problems for Boston. For example, Allen might wind up having to defend some post ups. Needless to say, Milwaukee hasn’t done a great job of taking advantage of many mismatches this season (just note their offensive woes), but this area of the game could become a big factor since those positions are their primary scoring positions.