BOSTON – Motivation is never in short supply when it comes to teams in the NBA playoffs.
But the higher the playoff seeding, the “us versus the world” narrative so many teams love to cloak themselves under this time of year, comes off as a stretch.
Not so much for the Celtics who begin their postseason quest this afternoon as the No. 2 seed, with a roster that doesn’t look anything like your typical No. 2 seed courtesy of what has been a season filled with injuries.
Sadly, it wasn’t all that shocking for the Celtics’ roster on the eve of the playoffs, to suffer a major blow – Kyrie Irving’s season-ending knee surgery – akin to how the season began with Gordon Hayward’s dislocated left ankle injury which ended his season after just five minutes.
Their absences are part of the narrative that the Celtics may be as ripe as any No. 2 seed we’ve seen in recent memory, to not get out of the first round against the seventh-seeded Milwaukee Bucks.
Celtics forward Marcus Morris has heard the murmurs about Boston’s impending demise, something he says has indeed added fuel to an already-motivated Celtics club that has been fighting – and beating – adversity all season.
After Hayward’s season-ending injury within the first five minutes of the season, the Celtics returned home the following night and lost to the Milwaukee.
Boston then reeled off 16 straight wins, setting the tone for a season in which they consistently exceeded the expectations of others while doing exactly what they set out to do at the start of the season – continue to get better.
“I’m looking forward to proving everybody wrong,” Morris said. “Everyone counting us out. This is about respect. I felt like we are not getting any respect so we’re gonna have to take it.”
And that means getting past a Milwaukee team led by all-star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Although Boston and Milwaukee split the season series 2-2, Antetokounmpo was easily the best player on the floor seemingly every game.
In those four matchups, he averaged a super-sized double-double of 33.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists while shooting 53.9 percent from the field.
Boston will throw several defenders at Antetokounmpo, including Morris.
“He’s a 7-footer or whatever he is, with long arms,” Morris said. “Once he gets in the paint it’s kind of hard to stop him. His up-fakes and step-throughs … just don’t give him any space. You have to step up on him when he goes downhill. Everybody has to help out on him.”
The attention Antetokounmpo draws has opened the offense up for his teammates, a big reason why Milwaukee shot 47.8 percent from the field this season which ranked third in the NBA.
But in Boston, the Bucks will see a defense that has been near the top of several defensive categories and finished the season with a league-best defensive rating of 101.5.
The big concern for the Celtics going into the postseason is centered around their offense which, not surprisingly, has taken a noticeable dip since Irving’s absence.
Prior to Irving missing the final 15 games, Boston had an offensive rating of 105.7 while averaging 104.4 points which ranked 16th and 20th, respectively, in the NBA.
Since then, Boston’s offensive rating has dipped to 103.3 while their scoring is also down to 102.1 which rank 24th and 26th, respectively.
But Boston may have found the elixir to its offensive struggles in the form of Milwaukee’s defense which despite its immense length at seemingly every position, has struggled regardless of who is on the floor or calling the shots from the sideline.
Under then-head coach Jason Kidd who was fired on Jan. 22, the Bucks had a defensive rating of 107.5 which ranked 24th in the NBA.
Since assistant Joe Prunty took over, Milwaukee’s defensive rating has made a slight improvement to 106.7 which ranks 15th in the league.
Milwaukee’s defense, when effective, includes them getting lots of deflections and forcing turnovers via steals, a category in which they average 8.8 per game which ranks second in the NBA.
But often those steals come via gambling defensively, and when it doesn’t work it creates open or lightly contested shots – something the Celtics will certainly look to capitalize on today.
Today’s game will be like many Boston has played this season, where the skeptics are out in full force, resulting in the Celtics’ mental toughness being challenged both on and off the court.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens doesn’t mince his words when he talks about things that concern him about today’s game and this playoff series against the Bucks.
But his team’s mental toughness?
Not a problem.
“I don’t think we’d be sitting where we were if we didn’t have a good deal of that in that locker room,” Stevens said. “I think they’re able to move on to what’s next, they’re committed to each other, they’re not gonna dwell on a bad performance individually and let it affect their next day.
Stevens added, “they’re not gonna raise banners over a good performance individually and let it hurt the next day. It’s a very kind of, ‘to the next thing’ group.”