MILWAUKEE -- Let’s put the Anthony Davis rumors on the shelf for a minute. Kyrie Irving’s health? Yeah, it’s something to talk about, but let’s table that discussion for a moment as well.
For all that seems to be going on with the Celtics these days, the one thing we hear very little about is the team’s play. It's been pretty good lately.
And when it comes to success after the All-Star break, the Celtics have been among the best in the East during Brad Stevens' time as coach. In three of the last four seasons, the Stevens-coached Celts had one of the top three records in the East following the All-Star break.
It's a trend they would love to continue, one that involves re-focusing on what matters most. Part of that involves getting the narrative surrounding the C's back to basketball, turning all the off-the-court talk into white noise as they go about handling their business on the floor.
And that business picks up in earnest Thursday night, when they face the East-leading Bucks in Milwaukee.
This will be the third and final time they meet this season, with the victor claiming the head-to-head series.
While it’s unlikely the Celtics can make up enough ground between now and the end of the year to actually finish in a tie, which would invoke a tie-breaker, every win matters for a team still trying to climb its way out of an early season hole and claim as high a playoff seeding as possible.
Currently fourth in the East, Boston (37-21) has already secured the tie-breaker with the Sixers. And while Boston has one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA (tankathon.com has the Celtics with the sixth-toughest), that actually bodes well for them considering they are at their best more times than not, against the best.
When facing the top four teams in the East this season (Milwaukee, Toronto, Indiana and Philadelphia), the C's are 7-3.
However, the Milwaukee team the Celtics face Thursday night should be noticeably different than the squad they've seen in the two previous meetings. The Bucks (43-14) bolstered their lineup at the trade deadline by acquiring Nikola Mirotic, one of the better shooting stretch bigs in the NBA. He's been limited by a right calf strain, but it wouldn't come as a surprise if he made his Milwaukee debut Thursday.
Still, when you talk about the Bucks, it all begins with Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has played himself into being a top-5 league MVP candidate this season.
He’s averaging a double-double of 27.2 points and 12.7 rebounds along with 6.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks. Most of his scoring comes within a few feet of the rim, thanks to his ability to get into the lane and finish with relative ease.
While the Celtics — or any team, for that matter — aren’t built to shut down Antetokounmpo, they tend to make life tougher than usual for the All-Star. Boston employs a multitude of defenders, among them second-year forward Semi Ojeleye. In Boston’s Nov. 1 win over the Bucks, Ojeleye defended Antetokounmpo on a team-high 24 possessions, limiting him to just nine points during that time.
But in Milwaukee’s Dec. 21 win over the Celtics, Ojeleye defended Antetokounmpo just 15 times (one short of the team leader, Jaylen Brown) with Antetokounmpo scoring 10 points while making all four of his field-goal attempts.
“Giannis is a tough cover,” Ojeleye said following the Nov. 1 win against Milwaukee.
And the Celtics have lately proven to be a tougher team, both mentally and physically on the floor. They come into Thursday night’s game riding a two-game winning streak, with wins in 12 of their last 15 games.
Players are starting to play with more consistency, particularly Gordon Hayward, who is slowly but surely regaining the form he displayed in his final season in Utah when he was an All-Star. Hayward, however, may miss Thursday's gam because of a right ankle sprain.
But Hayward isn't alone. Jaylen Brown has become a consistent scoring threat off the bench, evident by him reaching double figures scoring in 10 of Boston’s last 11 games. Al Horford, Jayson Tatum . . . you can go on and on about the guys whose play has picked up lately, and with that so have the victories.
Ultimately, that has to be what this season is about right now.
Because no amount of Anthony Davis speculation or questions about Kyrie Irving’s health can ever aid the Celtics in what should be their primary focus and goal right now: winning games.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.