For much of the 2022-23 season, it felt inevitable that the Eastern Conference would come down to a showdown between the Celtics and Bucks. There was much consternation here when Milwaukee’s long midseason winning streak allowed the Bucks to surge ahead of the Celtics and snag the No. 1 seed.
At the moment, it sure feels like Boston landing the No. 2 seed couldn’t have been more fortuitous.
The Bucks, hindered by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s back injury suffered in Game 1 of a first-round series against the Heat, find themselves on the brink of elimination after Jimmy Butler willed Miami to a 3-1 series lead with a 56-point outburst in Game 4 on Monday night.
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Even with the historically long odds of a team rallying from a 3-1 deficit, it would be premature to suggest the Bucks are done. Two of the final three games in this series would be played in Milwaukee, and a healthier Antetokounmpo could go a long way towards a potential Bucks rally.
Alas, if Miami can close out the series, Boston would secure homecourt for the remainder of its postseason journey.
It’s wild to think just how much the Hawks' upset of the Heat in the 7-8 play-in game might have altered the East. The Celtics got a favorable first-round matchup and have the opportunity to dispatch a Dejounte Murray-less Hawks team at TD Garden on Tuesday night.
For all of us who downplayed the severity of playing the Heat in Round 1 -- our hand is firmly raised -- it’s clear the defense-averse Hawks have emerged as a far more favorable matchup. Butler and the battle-tested Heat haven’t let an underwhelming season erode any of their typical postseason swagger.
That the Bucks have struggled even with Antetokounmpo’s injury is mildly surprising. If Milwaukee is able to rally out of this series, its struggles defending Butler and the 3-point shot is an encouraging sign for Boston if we were still to get a Celtics-Bucks showdown.
But the fact of the matter is that, if Miami can close out the Bucks as early as Wednesday’s Game 5, then it will be either the Heat or the Knicks emerging from the other side of the East bracket. Few could have envisioned that possibility even at the height of those two teams’ play this season.
The Celtics have far more pressing concerns than who might be in the East finals. Boston can prevent a trip back to Atlanta, secure itself a three-day break, and set up a second-round dance with the Philadelphia 76ers with a win on Tuesday night.
But it’s simply jarring just how much the Hawks might have altered everything in the East with that play-in victory.
A handful of thoughts with reports that the Houston Rockets plan to hire former Celtics coach Ime Udoka to fill their head-coaching void:
- Given that Udoka had been rumored in multiple vacancies early in the offseason, it’s somewhat surprising to see him lock in with Houston this quickly. The Houston job is intriguing based on the Rockets' young talent but would be even more interesting if the ping-pong balls bounce their way in the draft lottery next month. Udoka, after sitting out the entirety of the 2022-23 season, likely couldn’t pass up an opportunity.
- That Udoka ultimately landed outside the Atlantic Division is probably good for limiting distractions. From his talks with Brooklyn earlier this season, to the current vacancy in Toronto, to a possible opening in Philadelphia depending on the 76ers’ postseason performance, it has often felt likely that Udoka would be in the division one way or another next season.
- Celtics players will invariably be peppered with questions about Udoka, particularly once he holds his introductory press conference and addresses his Boston exit. Celtics players already went through this in November when the Nets pondered hiring Udoka to replace Steve Nash. Still, depending on how Udoka addresses his Boston departure, it adds a small distraction at a time when the Celtics should be focused on their quest for Banner 18.
- Ultimately, Udoka landing on a rebuilding team in the West instead of a playoff-ready team in the East is probably the best-case scenario for limiting the overall drama that will come with Udoka being back on the sideline.