12/23 Game Preview: Bucks at Celtics
With a record contract extension comes greater expectations for Giannis Antetokounmpo. Entering his eighth season, the Milwaukee Bucks star still has his eyes set on the NBA Finals berth and championship that has eluded his team the last two years.
"I know that I'm working towards that goal," the 26-year-old said upon the signing of his five-year, $228 million supermax contract last week. "The front office is working towards that goal. So I'm good. I'm happy. I think everybody's on the same page."
The quest begins once more as the Bucks kick off their season on the road Wednesday night against the Boston Celtics. The 72-game campaign, shortened and delayed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, will see Antetokounmpo and his team try to erase the sting of an earlier-than-expected exit at the NBA bubble last summer.
"I think we've got to get better," the two-time reigning MVP said. "We throw a first punch. We've got to throw a second punch, and the second punch is gotta be better in the playoffs. You've got to basically do what you do in the regular season, you've got to carry over in the playoffs, then you've got to do it even better."
Milwaukee, the best team in the league at 56-17 during the 2019-20 regular season, retooled after getting bounced in five games by the Miami Heat during the second round of the playoffs. Added via trade during the offseason was former All-Star guard Jrue Holiday, and veterans Bobby Portis, Bryn Forbes, Torrey Craig and D.J. Augustin were brought in to bolster the bench.
Holiday averaged 19.1 points per game for the New Orleans Pelicans last season and gives the Bucks another scorer to go with Antetokounmpo (29.5 points per game) and Khris Middleton (20.9). Gone is point guard Eric Bledsoe (14.9).
The Celtics experienced one of the biggest losses of the offseason when forward Gordon Hayward was sent to the Charlotte Hornets as part of a sign-and-trade deal. Hayward, though oft-injured, averaged 17.5 points per game last season.
Boston added former Cleveland Cavaliers big man Tristan Thompson (12.0 points per game, 10.1 rebounds) to help fill the void, but more important could be the signing of veteran Jeff Teague as backcourt depth with All-Star guard Kemba Walker expected out until January after receiving a stem cell injection in his left knee.
"We're trying to do the best with the information that we have and get him as strong and healthy as he can be, so he's ready to make it through the year," said general manager Danny Ainge of Walker.
Even with Walker playing on a balky knee at the bubble, the Celtics made it to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals before eventually being eliminated by the Heat. The playoffs saw 22-year-old forward Jayson Tatum further emerge as the team's future, with some pegging the former No. 3 overall pick to soon enter the conversation among the NBA's top players.
"Just building off the playoffs, facilitating more, things like that," said Tatum, who signed a five-year, $195 million contract extension in November, on where he can improve. "Being more efficient, getting stronger, being even more of a defensive threat. ... I just want to continue to get better in every aspect."