The Boston Celtics can probably see the end of their monstrous eight-game road trip. But this is not the time to look ahead.
The Celtics have two games remaining on their 13-day trek, which began with a marquee matchup in Los Angeles against the Lakers on March 11. But Thursday’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks – and, for that matter, Friday’s trip finale in Philadelphia – are probably the most important games on the trip.
The Celtics are 3-3 on the trip thus far. When they have been able to slow the tempo to a half-court affair, they have been successful. When they have dropped their guard and tried to run with opponents, they have had trouble.
Boston (24-21) is seventh in the Eastern Conference but just one game behind first-place Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division. Should they pass the 76ers and take the division lead, the Celtics would climb to fourth in the conference – and be in position to avoid a first-round matchup with Chicago or Miami.
But Boston needs to look backward as well, because the two hottest teams in the NBA are right behind them. The New York Knicks (23-24) have won five straight games and are two games back. The Bucks (21-24) have won six in a row and are ninth in the East, one game behind the Knicks and three behind the Celtics.
A win by Milwaukee would even the season series at one game each, with the potentially decisive third game at Boston on April 26, the final day of the season.
The Bucks have not lost since being done in by a buzzer-beater by Chicago’s Derrick Rose on March 7. During the streak, their offense has been clicking, averaging 112.7 points.
Eastern Conference Player of the Week Drew Gooden is playing his best ball of the season, averaging 17.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 6.5 assists while shooting 54 percent from the field. Brandon Jennings also is playing well, averaging 19.1 points and 7.1 assists while shooting 46 percent, including 38 percent from the arc.
But the biggest boost Milwaukee has gotten has come from guard Monta Ellis, who was acquired from Golden State at the trading deadline. Ellis is still feeling his way in the offense but has 32 points, 13 assists and five steals in two road wins. This will be his first game as a Buck at the Bradley Center, and he should get a warm greeting.
Ellis and Jennings will have to figure out how to corral Rajon Rondo, who had a triple-double in Boston’s 102-96 home win over Milwaukee on Sadie Hawkins Day. In that game, Jennings was scoreless until making a pair of 3-pointers during a desperate rally in the final two minutes.