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Bucks, Celtics meet in clash of top two teams in East

Five things to know before Milwaukee hosts Boston in their final regular-season meeting.

A key late-season matchup between the Celtics and Bucks could be a preview of the Eastern Conference finals.

Here are five things to know before Milwaukee hosts Boston on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT) in the final regular season meeting between the teams with the top two records in the Eastern Conference.

1. Can the Celtics catch the Bucks for the top seed in the East?

Milwaukee enters Thursday’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown against Boston with a three-game lead in the standings for the top seed in the Eastern Conference with six games left to play.

Any hopes for the Celtics to catch the Bucks requires winning this game as it would not only cut the lead to two games, but would also clinch the head-to-head tiebreaker as the season series is tied at 1-1. There would still be work left to do, and the Celtics would need help from the teams remaining on the Bucks’ schedule, but there would still be a pathway.

If the Bucks win on Thursday, they would increase their lead to four games with five games to play and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. That means the Celtics would have to win out and the Bucks would have to lose out for Boston to take the No. 1 seed.

The No. 1 seed locks up home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, and likely into the NBA Finals as both the Bucks (55-21) and Celtics (52-24) have superior records to the Western Conference-leading Denver Nuggets (51-24).

2. The importance of home-court advantage for both teams

Home-court advantage could prove important as two of the three most recent meetings in the playoffs between Boston and Milwaukee went the full seven games, with the Celtics winning both of those win-or-go-home games in Boston.

Recent Bucks vs. Celtics playoff history

When looking at the full-season standings, the Bucks and Celtics look very similar in their ability to win both at home and on the road. Entering Thursday’s game, the Bucks (30-7) and Celtics (28-9) rank third and sixth, respectively, in the NBA in home game win percentage. And they rank even higher on the road, with Milwaukee (25-14) posting the league’s top road record with Boston (24-15) a close second.

However, when we look specifically at the teams that would earn guaranteed playoff spots (top six in each conference) if the postseason started today, we begin to see some differences between the Bucks and Celtics.

In games against current playoff teams – Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Cleveland, New York and Brooklyn in the East; Denver, Memphis, Sacramento, Phoenix, LA Clippers and Golden State in the West – the Bucks are nearly perfect (11-1) playing these teams at home and a game under .500 (7-8) when facing these teams on the road. The Celtics have not been as dominant against these teams at home (10-5) and are similar to the Bucks against top competition on the road (7-7).

Records vs. current playoff teams (through games played March 29)

Boston Milwaukee
Opponents Wins Losses Win% Wins Losses Win%
Overall vs playoff teams 17 12 .586 18 9 .667
Home vs playoff teams 10 5 .667 11 1 .917
Road vs playoff teams 7 7 .500 7 8 .467


3. Antetokounmpo, Tatum part of historic group of 30-point scorers

The 2022-23 season has seen statistics not witnessed since the famous 1961-62 season. It has become routine to see teams score over 130 points in a game (there have been 238 such games so far this season compared to 184 last season), and individual players score 40 points (NBA record 188 games and counting) or 50 points (24 games by a record-tying 14 different players following Jrue Holiday’s career game on Wednesday) in a game.

Part of the offensive boom has seen more star players averaging at least 30 points than in any season in NBA history. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (31.2 ppg) and Boston’s Jayson Tatum (30.1 ppg) rank fifth and sixth in the league in scoring, respectively, with both players posting career-best marks in scoring this season.

As the shot charts below illustrate, Giannis and Tatum score their points in vastly different ways with Antetokounmpo dominating at the basket (he’s made a league-high 512 shots inside the restricted area, 134 more than second-ranked Domantas Sabonis with 378) and the free-throw line (he averages a league-high 12.3 free throws per game.

Tatum’s offense features a higher degree of variance as he ranks ninth in field goals made inside the restricted area (302), 35th in field goals made in the paint outside the restricted area (107), and 6th in 3-pointers made (199).


While we’ve looked at what separates Giannis and Tatum when it comes to scoring, it must be noted that the two both excel in transition opportunities and isolation sets.

Giannis leads all players with 9.5 of his point per game coming on transition plays. Tatum cracks the top 10 with 5.3 points per game coming in transition. Tatum (4.3 ppg) and Giannis (3.4 ppg) also rank eighth and 14th, respectively, on isolation plays.

4. Matchup of two of the league’s elite defenses

Boston enters Thursday’s game as the only team in the NBA ranked in the top five in both offensive efficiency (117.0, 4th) and defensive efficiency (110.9, 4th). The Celtics lead the NBA in net rating (6.2) while the Bucks rank fifth (4.3) in net thanks to a 13th-ranked offense (114.4) and a second-ranked defense (110.2).

The defensive resumes between these two have some striking similarities:

5. Middleton coming off season high, rounding into form

The Bucks enter Thursday with the league’s top record at 55-21 (.724). But they have been even better this year in the 30 games that Khris Middleton has played as he has worked his way back from a knee injury that kept him out of last year’s postseason, including the season-ending series loss to Boston.

Khris Middleton with 34 Points vs. Detroit Pistons, 03/27/2023

The Bucks are 23-7 (.767) with Middleton in the lineup this season, compared to 32-14 (.696) without him. One of those 32 wins sans Middleton came on Wednesday against Indiana as Holiday (career-high 51 points) and Antetokounmpo (triple-double) were able to lead the Bucks to a win over the shorthanded Pacers.

As part of Middleton’s injury management, he has not played in any back-to-backs so far this season. While that injury strategy usually involves playing the first game and then sitting the second game, the Bucks have flipped the script this week. By sitting Middleton on Wednesday against Indiana, he should be available to play on Thursday against Boston — barring any setbacks.

Middleton’s play has steadily improved since he made his season debut back in December, as his month-by-month splits illustrate.

December 7 24.4 11.1 2.6 4.4 32.5 26.8 89.5
January 5 16.5 12.4 2.8 3.6 44.7 36.8 100
February 8 22.1 16.5 6.4 4.4 48.6 29.7 85.0
March 10 31.1 19.3 4.8 6.6 46.9 34.6 88.6

In 10 games played in March, Middleton is averaging 19.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.6 assists with a 53.1% effective field goal percentage. This is the Middleton the Bucks need if they are to make a deep playoff run; his presence on the court was sorely missed during last year’s postseason, especially in the conference semifinals matchup with Boston.

In his last 10 games against the Celtics — dating back to the start of the 2019-20 season — Middleton has averaged 19.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 5.4 assists while shooting 48.7% from the field and 42.4% from 3-point range.