Celtics

Celtics ready to add another chapter to playoff rivalry vs. Bucks

Celtics ready to add another chapter to playoff rivalry vs. Bucks

BOSTON -- For the second year in a row, the Boston Celtics’ playoff journey will have to go through the Milwaukee Bucks. 

Their playoff history is not an overly extensive one, which should be a surprise when you consider the Celtics had already won 10 NBA titles by the time the Bucks became an NBA franchise in 1968.

This will mark the seventh time these two have met in the postseason, with the Celtics holding a commanding 5-1 all-time series lead. 

Here’s a recap of each playoff series.

1974: Boston wins NBA Finals, 4-3 

Both rosters were filled with future Hall of Famers, some coming into their prime (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens, Jo Jo White, Paul Westphal) while others were nearing the end of their illustrious careers (Oscar Robertson, John Havlicek).

A knee injury to Milwaukee point guard Lucious Allen that kept him sidelined for the entire series, would be a huge blow to the Bucks’ chances. And to the Celtics' credit, they took advantage of Allen’s absence to take Game 1 of the series and with it, home-court advantage away from Milwaukee. 

The Bucks bounced back in Game 2 as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the way at both ends of the floor in leading Milwaukee to an overtime victory in which he scored 36 points along with 15 rebounds and six assists with the series moving to Boston for Game 3. 

Game 3 saw the Celtics’ pressure defense force the Bucks into a slew of miscues from the outset, with Boston forcing 27 turnovers for the game which included 11 in the first quarter alone. The Bucks were never able recover as Boston went on to win 95-83 to regain home-court advantage which, as it turned out, would not mean much in this series. 

The road team won Games 4, 5 and 6 which set up a winner-take-all Game 7 in Milwaukee. 

Boston had been a man-to-man defensive team all season and in the playoffs, but head coach Tommy Heinsohn decided to throw the Bucks a curveball when he decided to have his players double- and triple-team Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for large chunks of the game. Abdul-Jabbar still wound up with a strong game of 26 points and 13 rebounds, and the help that Dave Cowens got defensively made him a lot fresher and more impactful in terms of scoring the ball.

Cowens would lead all scorers with 28 points on 13-for-25 shooting to go with four assists as Boston went on to a 102-87 win, giving Boston its 12th NBA title and first without Bill Russell on the roster. 

1983: Bucks win second-round series 4-0

With no Dave Cowens, the Boston Celtics were no match for the Milwaukee Bucks and their 1-2 combo of Sidney Moncrief and Marques Johnson. Even after Milwaukee took Games 1 and 2 at the Garden, there was still hope that Boston could right the ship due to their strong play on the road. 

During the regular season, the Celtics had the third-best road record. 

But that didn’t do them much good as the Bucks, upon returning home, picked up where they left off in Boston to take Games 3 and 4.

And in doing so, Milwaukee handed Boston its first four-game sweep ever. 

“We flat-out beat Boston and played well to do it,” Bucks head coach and former Celtic Don Nelson said at the time. “Am I surprised we beat them in four? Certainly. I didn’t think that was possible.”

Boston’s M.L. Carr had similar thoughts on what happened.  

“It’s like flunking a test in school,” Carr said at the time. “It had been done so many times in this uniform. And all of a sudden you come up short, it leaves you a lonesome feeling.”

1984: Boston wins Conference Finals 4-1

Facing the Bucks for the second straight year in the playoffs, the Celtics were looking to exact some revenge after having been swept by the Bucks in previous year.

Boston didn’t waste any time delivering a clear message as to how the series would play out, opening things with a 119-96 drubbing at the Boston Garden in Game 1.

The Celtics followed that up with a 125-110 win with Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson leading the way with 32 and 27 points, respectively. 

Milwaukee played better to start things in Game 3 on their home floor, but a second-half surge by the Celtics propelled them to a 109-100 win and with it a 3-0 series lead. 

It seemed only fitting that a year after the Bucks swept the Celtics, Boston now found itself in position to do the same. 

However, the Bucks refused to have their season end on their home floor as they held on for a 122-113 win.

It would end just a couple days later in Boston as the Celtics spent most of Game 5 playing with a lead before the game ended in a 115-108 series-clinching win for Boston, which went on to win the franchise’s 15th NBA title in a seven-game thriller over the Los Angeles Lakers. It would also mark the final game played by future Hall of Famer Bob Lanier.

1986: Boston wins Conference Finals, 4-0

By the time 1986 rolled around, the Boston Celtics had firmly established themselves as the team everyone in the Eastern Conference was chasing. Boston came into the Conference Finals against the Bucks having lost just one game in the postseason.

Boston came into the series on a mission: to get past Milwaukee as quickly as possible and get back to the NBA Finals after having lost to the Los Angeles Lakers the previous year. 

Indeed, the series with the Bucks was a clinic on how a great team rises to the occasion and doesn’t give their opponent a prayer’s chance at competing with them — let alone winning a game. 

Boston swept the series in four games, three of which ended with the Celtics winning by double figures. 

And the Celtics would go on to the NBA Finals to face the Houston Rockets, whom the Celtics downed in six games to claim NBA title No. 16.

1987: Boston wins second-round series, 4-3

Coming off another season ending with an NBA title, the gap between Boston and the rest of the East was starting to slowly but surely shrink.

Boston had no problem putting the Bucks away in Game 1, but Game 2 was much closer as Boston hung on for a 126-124 win with Larry Bird and Danny Ainge each scoring 30 points. 

Milwaukee built off the momentum of a strong Game 2 showing, to cut into Boston’s series lead with a 126-121 Game 3 win in which John Lucas had 30 points for the Bucks while Ricky Pierce came off the bench and scored 29. 

But Boston would come back with a double-overtime thriller, 128-127, to take a commanding 3-1 series lead with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale carrying a large chunk of the scoring load with 42 and 34 points, respectively. 

The Bucks used a strong fourth quarter to rally for a Game 5 win, and pulled off a similar late-game surge to win Game 6 and even the series at three games apiece. 

In Game 7, it was the Celtics benefiting from strong play in the fourth quarter to close out the series with a 119-113 victory, a game in which Boston outscored the Bucks 31-24 in the fourth. 

Larry Bird (31 points, 10 rebounds), Kevin McHale (26 points, 15 rebounds) and Dennis Johnson (19 points, 10 assists) each tallied a double-double in the series-clinching victory. 

2018: Boston wins first-round series, 4-3

Having not played in the postseason against one another for more than a quarter-century, this was not expected to be much of a series as the top-seeded Celtics were expected to roll over the eighth-seeded Bucks with no problem. 

But Milwaukee gave Boston all they could handle, even as the Celtics dominated Games 1 and 2 by leading for nearly 30 minutes in Game 1 and more than 43 minutes in Game 2. 

But the Bucks delivered an emphatic Game 3 performance in which Boston led for a total of just 35 seconds while Milwaukee essentially did whatever the Bucks wanted to before the game finally ended with a 116-92 win. 

Game 4 was a down-to-the-wire battle that ended with a tip-in by Giannis Antetokounmpo with 5.1 seconds to play to knot the series at 2-2.

Similar to the previous two Celtics wins, Boston spent the bulk of Game 5 - more than 40 minutes - playing with a lead before finishing with a 92-87 win in which Al Horford had a double-double of 22 points and 14 rebounds while Terry Rozier chipped in with 16 points. 

With a chance to close out the series in Game 6 and move on the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics’ efforts were rebuffed by the Bucks who weren’t quite ready to have their season end. 

A poor second quarter by Boston in which the Celtics were outscored 26-15, would prove to be the difference as Milwaukee lived to play another day with a 97-86 win. 

Once again in a Game 7, winner-take-all scenario, Boston made the most of the moment with several players chipping in, led by their playoff edition Big Three of Al Horford (26 points, eight rebounds), Terry Rozier (26 points, nine assists, six rebounds) and Jayson Tatum (20 points, six rebounds, five assists). The Bucks stayed relatively close, but they could never really get over the hump and gain control of the game which was evident by Boston playing with a lead or being tied for all but two minutes and 39 seconds of play. 

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Gordon Hayward's return will help Celtics the most in these four areas

Gordon Hayward's return will help Celtics the most in these four areas

BOSTON — With Gordon Hayward set to return possibly as early as Monday night’s game against Cleveland, he’ll be rejoining a squad that’s playing great basketball which has them among the NBA’s top teams.

But here’s the thing. 

Before suffering a fourth metacarpal fracture in his left hand which has been surgically repaired, Hayward and the Celtics were playing the best basketball of any team in the league. 

Can they get back to where they were with Hayward?

If they do, look for Boston to make notable strides in the following areas of play. 

OFFENSIVE OPTIONS

Now keep in mind, even when Hayward was healthy, the Celtics weren’t exactly killin’ the game with a ton of points or red-hot shooting. 

What they did more than anything else was create a pick-your-poison scenario on a game-to-game basis for defenses.

While there’s some element of that still around in his absence, there’s no debate that Hayward’s presence makes Boston a much more dangerous team to defend. 

And upon his return, the Celtics will be even more dangerous, thanks to the emergence of Jaylen Brown, who has been delivering All-Star quality production with Hayward out, along with the solid contributions Boston has been getting all season from Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. 

DEFENSIVE VERSATILITY

The NBA is all about creating mismatches on the floor, so teams with the ability to switch effectively on defense will find success. The return of Hayward gives Boston another body who has the size, strength and mobility to defend multiple positions. 

When he was healthy, the Celtics' defensive rating of 101.5 was the fifth-best mark in the NBA, which was surprising when you consider they lost defensive anchors Al Horford (Philadelphia) and Aron Baynes (Phoenix) in the offseason.

Boston’s defensive rating without Hayward dipped to 104.7, which still ranks seventh in the NBA. 

And while Hayward’s defensive ability has been questioned in the past, his defensive rating of 100.6 stacks up well relative to his teammates. 

WING DEPTH

If you want to win in the NBA, you better have wings — and that’s plural, not singular. And the Celtics have more than their share of talented ones, which is why the return of Hayward is so vital to the team’s overall success. 

Hayward has the ability to do many things on the floor, evident by his stats this season which touch on all the key categories. 

In addition to averaging 18.9 points per game, Hayward is also grabbing 7.1 rebounds to go with 4.1 assists per game.

Those are good numbers for sure. 

But what makes the Celtics so dangerous is they have not one but two others delivering similar production or better from the wing position, in Jayson Tatum (21.2 points, 7.0 rebounds) and Jaylen Brown (20.0 points, 6.9 assists).

STRONGER BENCH

The Celtics’ second unit has taken its share of hits this season because they don’t score as much as some — OK, most — other reserve groups. Of course that’s partly because Boston has one of the highest-scoring starting fives in the NBA, which means limited opportunities for the backups and thus, less points. 

Because of that, it puts a greater premium on their bench players to come in and impact the game at the defensive end of the floor. 

And the return of Gordon Hayward will provide that group some much-needed depth with what will likely be the return of defensive ace Marcus Smart back to that unit which has been solid this season. 

According to hoopsstats.com, Boston has allowed opposing second units to score 33.4 points per game which is the fourth-fewest allowed in the NBA this season.  

That number will likely take a drop with Smart directing that group more than he is currently. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Cavaliers, which tips off Monday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Tommy & Mike have the call at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Celtics injury report: Robert Williams ruled out vs. Cavaliers

Celtics injury report: Robert Williams ruled out vs. Cavaliers

The Boston Celtics will be missing some size on their bench for Monday night's game vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Robert Williams has been ruled out with left hip soreness, the team announced Sunday. Rookie Romeo Langford was also ruled out as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered during a game with the Maine Red Claws.

On the bright side for Boston, Gordon Hayward could make his long-awaited return to the court after missing the last month with a fractured left hand.

Hayward originally was slated to return from his injury around Christmas.

The Celtics (16-5) and Cavaliers (5-17) will face off at 7:30 p.m. ET on Monday.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Cavaliers, which tips off Monday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Tommy & Mike have the call at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.