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5 takeaways on Celtics & Bucks before 1st matchup of the season

The top 2 teams in the East — Boston and Milwaukee — will match up for the 1st time this season on Wednesday.

Jrue Holiday and Jayson Tatum have helped lead Boston to an NBA-best 11-3 record to begin the season.

One month into the season, the Eastern Conference is looking like what so many of us expected – at the top, anyway.

The Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks are right where most insiders and fans projected them to be. They are 1-2 in the East, with the chance that they could swap spots as soon as Wednesday night (7:30 ET, ESPN).

That’s when the two East powerhouses meet for the first of four times this season – potentially five, pending matchups in the Knockout Round of the new In-Season Tournament. As the earliest matchup, this clash might offer the least useful glimpse into any postseason possibilities. The teams are scheduled to play again in January, March and April.

Still, this one provides a fair measuring stick for what they’ve done and where they’re headed.

Here are five takeaways on each team after four weeks:

Boston: Title favorites and playing like it

1. Tinkering with a good team in search of a great one

It would have been simple and defensible for the Celtics to run back their crew from 2022-23, on the heels of a Finals trip in 2022 and Game 7 of the East finals last spring. But Celtics president of basketball Brad Stevens didn’t do that. In fact, he traded away the player long considered to be the heart and soul of the team in a gamble for improvement.

He got it. Kristaps Porzingis, acquired by moving popular guard Marcus Smart, provides a new level of frontcourt scoring and rim protection. Landing Jrue Holiday after the Bucks shed him in their trade for Damian Lillard largely replaces Smart at both ends. That move also delivered a gut punch to the Bucks, coming five days after they acquired Lillard.

Their record, 11-3, is no better than it was after 14 games last season. But the roster is deeper, the threats come from new directions and responsibility for a run back to the Finals now rests squarely on Jayson Tatum’s and Jaylen Brown’s shoulders.

2. Getting it done on both sides

The Celtics lead the NBA in net rating (10.6), which isn’t hard to do when you’re doing as well both offensively (6th, 117.6) and defensively (3rd, 107.0). Only Oklahoma City and Denver are in the Top 10 in all three categories, neither as high as the Celtics in any one.

Giving up Smart and Robert Williams III was a step back defensively, but Holiday’s arrival and the development and continuity of returning players have made the Celtics two steps better. Derrick White and Holiday are unsurpassed as a defensive backcourt. Tatum is underrated and Porzingis’ size matters in the paint.

3. Tatum as a legit MVP candidate

Tatum will turn 26 in March and is on track not only for a fifth All-Star selection but MVP consideration after his fourth-place finish in the balloting last spring.

There’s no quibbling with his production – 28.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 4.1 apg, 50.7% shooting overall and 38.4% from the arc. He has failed to score 20 only twice, with seven games of 30 points or more, including Monday’s 45 against Charlotte. His leadership by example and in more overt ways for his Boston teammates is undeniable too.

Even a Michael Jordan MVP trophy might not be honor enough for Tatum. Celtics legend Paul Pierce said the Celtics forward might be the best American-born player in the game today, with the possible exception of Steph Curry.

“I already thought Joker [Nikola Jokic] is the best player right now,” Pierce said on a podcast this week. “He’s the best overall … but the best American player is Jayson Tatum. And I don’t really see, outside of Curry, it’s not really a decent argument I feel that anybody can give.”

Tatum (illness) is questionable for Wednesday’s matchup against Milwaukee.

4. Mazzulla’s 3-point devotion paying off

Since coach Joe Mazzulla took over to start last season, the Celtics have had a mandate to shoot more 3-pointers. They are averaging 43.8 attempts this season, tops in the NBA, with a target of 50 per game. Two seasons ago before Mazzulla replaced Ime Udoka, Boston took 37.1 and made 13.2, about five fewer than now.

Things have gotten a little touchy along the way, trying to discern if Mazzulla has his team too reliant on the long ball. But so far it’s been hard to prove. The Celtics are 3-1 when they launch 50 or more from the arc, 4-1 when they shoot between 40-49 and 4-1 when they take 39 or fewer.

5. It hasn’t been all sweetness and light  

Boston has lost just once in the past two weeks. But that one stung, a 121-118 overtime defeat at Charlotte Monday. Derrick White and Al Horford weren’t available and it was the second night of back-to-back games. But greater reasons included missed free throws and a noticeable dip in effort against a team the Celtics might have taken too lightly. They blew a lead of 18 points in the first half and another of nine points with two minutes to play.

Jaylen Brown in particular took heat after that one. Since signing his super-max contract extension (the largest in league history) the eighth-year wing is shooting career-low percentages overall and on 3s. His scoring and assists are at their lowest in four years. He shot 5-of-17 against the Hornets for just 13 points and forced up a pair of late 3-pointers, missing a wide-open Porzingis on one in OT.

Milwaukee: Making all the pieces fit

Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo have created dominant chemistry together during the first month.

1. Slow start, but the Lillard deal was needed

It hasn’t been easy, but as the Bucks have grown more accustomed to Lillard – and he with them – the reasons Milwaukee was the surprise trade partner for his services have become more apparent. They needed a scorer and a closer, beyond what Antetokounmpo offered due to shaky foul shooting. Middleton’s injuries and Holiday’s offensive sputters in the postseason also made that case.

The learning curve was bumpy at the start, but time and adjustments, strategic and mental, have things clicking now. The Bucks are 9-0 when Lillard scores 20 or more, 7-3 when Antetokounmpo does so. The 132-125 victory over Dallas Saturday felt almost scripted, with the Greek Freak scoring 40 while Lillard took over down the stretch and finished with 27.

“I think when he’s playing that way, I’ve got to make sure that I match him in a way that’s positive,” Lillard said. “Not his turn, my turn, but I’ve got to be effective while he’s doing what he’s doing. Whether that’s my spacing or when they go double him and they throw it to me and I’m open, I’ve got to take and make those shots. So it’s a pick-your-poison type of situation where we can play off of each other.”

2. Antetokounmpo is as unstoppable as ever

It was a bit unnerving to see Antetokounmpo return from another offseason without any noticeable enhancement to what admittedly is an already elite game. No big improvement at the foul line. No reliable go-to move. He flashed some lessons from a summer tutoring session with legendary big man Hakeem Olajuwon, but not as a steady diet.

And it doesn’t matter much. Antetokounmpo’s scoring average, 30.2, is the second-highest of his career. He’s making 62% of his shots. His rebounds and assists are down a bit but he still ranks in the league’s Top 10 in multiple categories. His usage rate is down a little too, and he’s working with a new coach and a new star sidekick.

“We can go like three, four, five minutes down the stretch without me actually even touching the ball, and I’m not used to that,” he said. “Through all the new things that we are doing in this team and me not being in my comfort zone, I believe that I’m going to be able to become the best version of myself.”

3. Still waiting on Middleton

Viewed from a certain vantage, Middleton’s production looks as solid as in his three All-Star seasons: 21.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists. But that’s per 36 minutes, a workload the high-mileage 32-year-old wing hasn’t touched yet. The Bucks’ medical staff has kept him below 22 minutes in all but one appearance (23 at Washington Monday) and he has yet to play in both back-to-back games.

That slow ramp-up from offseason knee surgery will continue, with a goal of having Middleton up closer to his career average (31.2 minutes) by spring. In the meantime, though, his time on the floor makes his time off pretty tough. When he’s out there, the Bucks are 14.8 points per 100 possessions better than their foes. When he’s not, they are 2.2 points worse.

4. Red flags on the defense and the depth

Defensively, Milwaukee has sunk to an embarrassing level this season, ranking 23rd at 115.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. That’s a plummet from 4th last season, much worse than during their five-season run under coach Mike Budenholzer (from 1st in 2018-19, followed by 1st, 9th, 14th and 4th).

There have been tactical reasons for the dropoff (see below) but personnel plays a role, too. As Chicago coach Billy Donovan said recently, “Don’t underestimate how great Holiday is. Don’t underestimate Wesley Matthews. Those guys are like junkyard-dog killers on defense.”

Currently, the Bucks don’t have a defensive stopper. Holiday and Matthews are gone. Jae Crowder was supposed to be a P.J. Tucker type, but he’s out into January with a groin injury. Brook Lopez is 35. Antetokounmpo is too valuable to wear out chasing and fouling other team’s scoring threats. What youth there is on the bench largely is not highly touted, clearly unproven.

5. Adrian Griffin is listening to his players

His team’s 5-4 start, including 1-3 on the road, had plenty of Bucks fans questioning GM Jon Horst’s decision to hire a rookie head coach for a top-ranked title contender. Heck, their line of thinking went, the Bucks could have hired Nick Nurse and had Griffin come along as an assistant.

In the early going, he had a deer-in-the-headlights look during games and even in media sessions. But a week in, some veteran Bucks told him they preferred playing the drop defense with which they were familiar, so Griffin backed off on his heavy diet of switching and ball pressure.

Since then, the Bucks have gone 8-2 and ranked 15th defensively, a notable rise at that end.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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