Milwaukee (44-38) forced this decisive game with a 97-86 victory in Game 6 on Thursday night as the home team has won every contest in this series. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 31 points and 14 rebounds for the Bucks, who are in a Game 7 for the first time since losing to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the 2010 postseason.
Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon added 16 points apiece, with the latter picking up the scoring slack for Eric Bledsoe, who was held to nine on three-of-ten shooting. Milwaukee also held a 48-39 edge in rebounds and forced Boston into settling from the perimeter.
The Bucks are shooting 50.4 percent overall in this series and have outscored Boston by 12 points over the course of the six games, but the Celtics have accumulated a 115-81 edge in free throws made, a gap made bigger by Milwaukee shooting just 66.9 percent from the foul line compared to Boston’s 77.2 percent clip.
The Celtics (55-27) went ten of 36 from 3-point range Thursday night and shot a series-low 37.0 percent overall. Jayson Tatum scored 22 points and Terry Rozier added 16, but he needed 17 shots to reach that mark while adding seven rebounds and five assists.
Boston have been a far more efficient team at home in this series, averaging 108.3 points in their three wins compared to 93.3 per game in their three defeats in Milwaukee. The Celtics have also outscored the Bucks 47-22 in second-chance points at home and by a 63-39 count in points off turnovers.
This is the second straight year the Celtics are playing a Game 7, having eliminated the Washington Wizards at home in the conference semifinals.
Three keys to the game
Game 7 history, Milwaukee - The Bucks are just 2-7 in Game 7s in franchise history, with both victories coming at home in the conference semifinals. They defeated Philadelphia 113-112 in 1986 and Charlotte 104-95 in 2001. Milwaukee have never won a Game 7 on the road in franchise history, coming up short on six occasions, including a 119-113 loss to the Celtics in the 1987 conference semifinals.
Game 7 history, Boston - Unsurprisingly, the team with the most NBA titles also have played the most Game 7s in the league and emerged victorious the most in these winner-take-all showdowns. The Celtics are 22-8 all-time in Game 7s, including an imposing 19-4 mark at home, and have won their last two first-round Game 7s, beating Atlanta in 2008 and Chicago in 2009.
They last lost a decisive first-round game in 2005, getting trounced 97-70 by the Indiana Pacers. Besides their 1987 win over the Bucks in Game 7, the Celtics also won the 1974 NBA Finals by recording a 102-87 victory at Milwaukee for the 11th of their league-most 17 titles.
3-balls and run-outs - The team that has shot better from 3-point range has won all six games in this series, with the victors shooting 41.9 percent or higher in the first four games before the defenses tightened in the last two. Boston won Game 5 shooting 32.3 percent from beyond the arc, and Milwaukee went even lower at 30.8 percent Thursday night.
And while the team with the edge in fast-break points have not been the winner of each game as consistently as the better 3-point shooting team, the Bucks have a clear edge here as they have outscored the Celtics 95-57 in transition in the series after running up a 25-4 advantage in Game 6.
Matchup to watch
PF Giannis Antetokounmpo vs PFs Semi Ojeleye and Markieff Morris - The first thing people look for in Game 7 is who has the best player on the court. For Saturday night, that is the Milwaukee Bucks and the Greek Freak, who has given the Celtics fits all season long besides this grind-out series, and the Bucks are counting on him to show the aggressiveness he displayed in Game 6's must-win.
Antetokounmpo scored 12 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter Thursday night, and the possibility of him taking over down the stretch should terrify the Celtics. In the ten total games between the teams this season,
Antetokounmpo has averaged 7.8 points and 2.1 assists while shooting 52.9 percent in the fourth quarter alone and has consistently gotten to the foul line, where he has made 22 of 28 free throws.
Despite his increased usage in crunch time, he has committed only six fourth-quarter turnovers. And his scoring and assist numbers would be higher had he sat out the final period of Milwaukee's Game 3 blowout.
Ojeleye and Morris are just the two front-wave players who will guard Antetokounmpo, with Aron Baynes and Al Horford likely to get rotations on the Bucks All-Star. One area of concern for coach Brad Stevens is Ojeleye's lack of offense, the rookie has totaled just ten points on three-of-13 shooting in this series.
Milwaukee Bucks projected starting lineup
PG - Eric Bledsoe | SG - Malcolm Brogdon | C - Thon Maker | SF - Khris Middleton | PF - Giannis Antetokounmpo
Boston Celtics projected starting lineup
PG - Terry Rozier | SG - Jaylen Brown | C - Al Horford | SF - Jayson Tatum | PF - Semi Ojeleye
Antetokounmpo has posted six double-doubles in the ten games between the teams this season, averaging 29.2 points, 10.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.7 steals while connecting on 57.0 percent of his shots. His numbers are even better in Boston, where he has totaled 31.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists per contest while shooting 59.6 percent.
Middleton's 16-point effort ended a run of six games of 20 or more points versus the Celtics, but he is averaging 21.0 points and 4.1 assists in the ten games while shooting 54.3 percent. Like Antetokounmpo, Middleton's scoring average in Boston has ticked higher as he has averaged 22.6 points and shot 51.8 percent.
Tatum's first taste of the playoffs have gone about as expected for the rookie who has averaged 14.7 points while shooting 40.0 percent. Tatum, though, has played far better in Milwaukee than at home, where he totaled 12 points on four-of-16 shooting in the last two wins after scoring 19 in his playoff debut in the Game 1 victory.
Second-year guard Jaylen Brown has been steady in this series, reaching double figures in all six games while scoring 20.5 points per contest and shooting 40.5 percent from beyond the arc (17 for 42). He averaged 21.3 points and 5.0 rebounds in Boston's three home wins this postseason.
The Celtics have been established as 4.5-point favorites for this game and have trends in their favor as they look to cover for the eighth time in the last ten meetings between the teams and for the fifth consecutive game at TD North Garden.
Boston have covered in their last four home games and are 8-2 against the spread in their last ten first-round playoff games. They are also 6-2 versus the number in their last eight against Central Division teams and have covered in nine of their last 11 following a straight up loss.
Milwaukee have failed to cover in their last four games and are 2-7 against the spread in their last nine first-round postseason games. The Bucks are also 3-8 versus the number in their last 11 matchups with Atlantic Division teams and 6-15 in their last 21 against conference rivals. They also have failed to cover in their last four road games against teams with above-.500 records at home.
The over/under has trickled down 1.5 points since its open to 195.5, which could give bettors liking the over more incentive considering the over has gone 10-2-1 in the last 13 meetings between the teams in Boston and 6-2 in the last eight overall.
The over has also posted an 11-2 mark in Milwaukee's last 13 games against Atlantic Division teams and 13-3 in the last 16 against conference foes.
The over is also trending for Boston, going 8-2 in their last ten overall and versus conference rivals in addition to a 6-1 mark in their last seven at home and a 14-3 record in Boston's last 17 Saturday games.
While the trend has reversed slightly in recent years, Game 7 of NBA playoff series has usually been a winning proposition for the home team. Teams who have been in the top two seeds in both conferences have never lost a Game 7 at home in eight all-time contests, and only 15 home teams have lost the deciding game in the 34 years since the league expanded their format to 16 teams in 1984.
Specific to this series, there really is not too much pressure on Boston despite their status as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Many have felt the Celtics have been playing with house money to a degree all season after losing Gordon Hayward five minutes into 2017/18 and then losing Kyrie Irving late in the campaign gave the postseason a feel of "Let's try to make the best of it while we're here" for pundits assessing Boston's chances.
This has been a good series for coaching between Stevens and Bucks counterpart Joe Prunty, whose future chances of remaining coach of the Bucks when they move into their new building next season are likely riding on this game.
Prunty has ridden the wave generated by reserve big men Thon Maker and Jabari Parker, and Stevens has countered by giving more minutes to Ojeleye and then getting Marcus Smart back for the previous two games.
But this game will come down to the Greek. Expect Antetokounmpo to be in playmaker mode from the tip, but also watch Bledsoe. If Milwaukee's defense starts strong, Bledsoe will try to make the Bucks go downhill offensively at every opportunity.
While he is not the finisher at the rim that Russell Westbrook is (then again, who is?), Bledsoe is at his best penetrating and dishing for Middleton and Antetokounmpo to finish.
The sum of the Celtics has been greater than their parts throughout this series and that must continue to win this game and series. Tatum and Brown have earned their teammates' trust, and if Rozier can play within himself, both he and Smart have the defensive capabilities to neutralize Bledsoe.
While Milwaukee have the best player on the court in this game and have shown the ability to shoot well throughout this series, there is something about this Celtics team that exudes a quiet confidence. There is a reason the Celtics won 55 games, just like there is a reason the Bucks won only 44.
Look for Boston to make it 20-4 all-time in Game 7s at home as they advance with a 99-90 victory over Milwaukee.
The game will be televised nationally on TNT and locally on Fox Sports Wisconsin and NBC Sports Boston. Tip-off time is 8 pm EDT.
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