The Milwaukee Bucks returned from the NBA All-Star break with a 98-97 win over the Boston Celtics on Thursday at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.
Kyrie Irving had an opportunity to win it for Boston in the final seconds. His left-handed floater at the buzzer hit the back iron as time expired.
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Khris Middleton's three-pointer with 32.5 seconds remaining proved to be the difference.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, who's in a neck-and-neck race with James Harden for MVP, posted 30 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in the victory. Middleton chipped in a double-double (15 points, 13 rebounds).
Irving had missed Boston's last two games before the All-Star break. He had 22 points and five assists in his return.
The Bucks won the season series, which gives them the tiebreaker in the unlikely event the two teams finish with the same regular-season record.
Nikola Mirotic Offers Glimpse of His On-Court Impact over Stretch Run
Nikola Mirotic made his Bucks debut Thursday. Milwaukee acquired him from the New Orleans Pelicans just ahead of the Feb. 7 NBA trade deadline. The team received almost universal praise for adding a proven shooter and more help spacing the floor for Antetokounmpo.
Mirotic played 14 minutes, shooting 2-of-6 from beyond the arc en route to an eight-point night. Milwaukee was also plus-one with him on the floor.
As expected, the 28-year-old forward looks like a perfect fit alongside Antetokounmpo. When defenses inevitably collapse to guard against Antetokounmpo's drives, it frees up Mirotic on the perimeter.
ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Bucks were among Anthony Davis' preferred landing spots as he looked for an exit from the New Orleans Pelicans. As much fun as it is to imagine Davis and Antetokounmpo on the same team, Milwaukee didn't have the pieces to make that happen before the deadline.
And realistically, Mirotic was the exact player the Bucks should've targeted as they geared up for the stretch run. General manager Jon Horst didn't need to move heaven and earth to get a superstar in the middle of the year and risk upsetting a dynamic that has proved so successful.
Mirotic's role is unlikely to grow much, but he should become even more effective as he becomes accustomed to Mike Budenholzer's offense and his teammates' tendencies.
Celtics Must Avoid Playoff Matchup with Milwaukee to Have a Shot at Eastern Conference Crown
As frustrating as this season has been for the Celtics, it's important to keep things in perspective. Boston matches up well with almost all of its fellow Eastern Conference title contenders.
The Celtics are up 2-1 in their season series with the Toronto Raptors and are fresh off a 112-109 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers—a game in which Irving didn't play. The Indiana Pacers' hopes of a deep playoff run ended with Victor Oladipo's season-ending knee injury on Jan. 23.
And for as much as the Raptors and Sixers did to improve their rosters this month, those moves could backfire. Marc Gasol is no longer an All-Star center, and Philadelphia is still top-heavy after it added Tobias Harris. Joel Embiid will be out for at least a week while dealing with left knee soreness.
The Bucks are an exception for Boston, which is less of an indictment of the Celtics than it is a statement of Milwaukee's status as the East's best team. According to NBA.com, the Bucks are first in net rating (9.4), and Boston's in third (6.1).
Middleton's three-pointer was a perfect example of why Milwaukee can be such a nightmare to defend. After the Celtics forced the ball out of Antetokounmpo's hands, they still had to guard four capable three-point shooters on the perimeter.
Boston also runs into trouble against the Bucks because Milwaukee has a pair of guards (Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon) who can make life difficult for Irving. Irving shot 9-of-27 from the field Thursday, bringing him to 38.8 percent shooting against Milwaukee this season.
And on offense, the Celtics can't exactly hide Irving by having him guard Brogdon. The third-year guard is good enough that he can blow by Irving on his way to the hoop or pull up for mid-range jumpers.
It looks like the East will run through Milwaukee, which is the worst-case scenario for the Celtics in the postseason.
The Bucks stay at home Saturday when they host the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Celtics move on to the second leg of their three-game road trip. They play the Chicago Bulls on Saturday in the Windy City.