Game Preview: Bucks at Celtics

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – For the first time in a long time, the Boston Celtics (38-27) will have a lot riding on the final game of their regular season. The Celtics need a win over the Milwaukee Bucks (31-34) at 8 p.m. tonight in order to preserve the possibility of owning home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Boston trails its first-round opponent, the Atlanta Hawks, by one game in the loss column. That means the C’s must win tonight and the Hawks must lose to result in Games 1 and 2 to being played in TD Garden.

Thanks to the significance of this game, don’t expect Doc Rivers to follow his typical guidelines of resting his key players on the final night of the regular season.

“We’re going to play our guys Thursday anyway, especially because they didn’t play [Tuesday],” Rivers proclaimed Tuesday night.

Boston’s head coach did follow that statement up by saying that is at the plan heading into tonight’s game, but that no one knows if it will come to fruition.

The plan for Tuesday night’s game against the Miami Heat fell apart just hours before tip-off. Rivers wanted to play Kevin Garnett and rest Paul Pierce in that contest. However, when Garnett said that he could use another couple days of rest due to soreness in his hip flexor, Rivers was forced to reverse the plan and play Pierce while Garnett sat.

Pierce wound up playing less than 18 minutes and the other two starters who played Tuesday night, Brandon Bass and Avery Bradley, each played less than 30. Those limited minutes should allow Rivers to play all of his healthy players for as long as he wants tonight. The question is, who will be healthy?

Rajon Rondo (back) hasn’t played since April 17, Mickael Pietrus (knee) hasn’t played since April 15, and Ray Allen (ankle) hasn’t played since April 10. Rivers would love to play them all tonight in order to prep them for the playoffs, but he won’t do so unless they are healthy.

The importance of getting those players onto the floor tonight is twofold. First, the C’s need all of the ammunition they can get to knock off the Bucks and potentially gain home court. Second, the Celtics haven’t played a game with all of their top eight players since March 22.

While the Celtics are looking to catch their groove heading into the playoffs, their opponent tonight will be wrapping up its season. Milwaukee has lost four of its past six games and dropped out of playoff contention within the last week.

The Bucks traded for Monta Ellis in March thinking that the move would help them make a push for the playoffs. However, the duo of Ellis and Brandon Jennings hasn’t played well enough to spark the team. Milwaukee hasn’t beaten a plus-.500 team in a full month.

While the Bucks will be playing in their final game together before heading their separate ways, the Celtics are in a much different situation. Boston wants this win, and getting it could pay off in the form of a home game this weekend.

Milwaukee’s Motivation

In short, there isn’t much motivation for the Bucks tonight. They aren’t going to the playoffs and they have three starters (Ellis, Ersan Ilyasova, Carlos Delfino) who missed last night’s game against the 76ers. Their sole motivation would be to head into the offseason on a winning note.

That might not be enough motivation to take down the Celtics tonight. Boston is 2-0 against Milwaukee this season and both of those games took place when the Bucks were still competing for the playoffs. Now that the playoffs are out of sight and vacation time is on the horizon, the Bucks might just overlook this final game of the season.

If Rondo Returns…

If Rondo returns to the lineup tonight after his three-game absence, let’s not forget the fact that he has a 23-game streak of recording at least 10 assists. He’s just six away from tying John Stockton for the second-longest streak in NBA history.

Rondo has been on the sideline with a sore lower back since Boston’s game in New York on April 17. Jumping back into the lineup and dishing out at least 10 assists won’t be easy, particularly if several key teammates don’t make it onto the floor. We’re not sure yet if Rondo himself will be on the floor tonight, but if he is, keep an eye on that streak.

Ride Pierce to the Finish Line

Pierce has been this team’s best offensive player all season long and that trend should continue tonight if he plays major minutes.

The captain has scored with ease against the Bucks this season, as he has shot at a blistering 55.6 percent clip against them in two games. That shooting has led to a 17.5 PPG average against Milwaukee’s top small forwards.

As we’ve already noted, those top small forwards might not be on the floor tonight for the Bucks. Delfino is nursing a sore groin and hasn’t played since April 19. It would be a surprise if he returned from that injury simply to partake in the final game of the regular season. Pierce will likely face off against rookie Tobias Harris and Mike Dunleavy, Jr., for the majority of tonight’s game.

Play Hard, but Play Safe

Professional athletes and their coaches always make the comment that more injuries occur when the athletes are playing at half-speed rather than full-speed. The C’s would be smart to keep that in mind tonight.

You never go into a game looking to avoid an injury, and tonight is no exception. However, Boston would love to get out of this game with the same bill of health with which it entered the game.

The Celtics need to play this game hard and at full speed, but they also need to be mindful of playing it safe. If there are marginal plays in this game, such as flying into the stands to save a ball, the team might be better served to pass on making them.