Somehow, despite everything, the NBA officially returned yesterday. Now, the hope is that the Bubble doesn’t burst, everyone stays safe and the league manages to make it to October without any further delays. Tonight, the Boston Celtics’ season begins again as they face the Milwaukee Bucks in what could end up being a preview of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Okay, this is probably not doing justice for the 46-18 Toronto Raptors who, last we saw them, were three games ahead of the Celtics for the second seed in the East. It’s unlikely that Boston will be able to jump ahead of them in the eight games that remain before the Strangest Postseason In NBA History kicks off. You’ll be forgiven if you forget that the Raptors are still technically defending champions and they have managed an impressive follow-up campaign despite losing Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Celtics, however, may have benefitted from all the time off, especially as their top five players (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart) rarely had the opportunity to play together this season. If they stay healthy—and Walker’s knee soreness, which will limit his playing time tonight, ensures that this will be an “if”—it’s hard to say that the Raptors are a more talented squad, especially not with Tatum potentially poised to make the jump to superstardom. The Raptors’ regular season record won’t mean as much this year as it would in years past, there’s no such thing as home court when everybody’s forced to play in the Happiest Place on Earth.
Of course, the Raptors aren’t the only team that would be in the Celtics way. There’s also the Philadelphia 76ers, who have beaten Boston in three of their four meetings this season. While the move to sign Al Horford out from underneath the Celtics’ noses has not worked out as smoothly as they hoped, they seem to have Boston’s number. Fun fact: if the postseason started today, guess who the Celtics would face in the first round?
Still, after the hard reset, it’s hard to know exactly how much the recent past will tell us about the near future. The Celtics have ever right in thinking that they could be the Bucks’ biggest obstacle come playoff time, although they will be clear underdogs should they meet. Milwaukee has Giannis Antetokounmpo, for starters, and his only competition for league MVP happens to be LeBron James, who of course is now in the West. The Bucks had been dominating the competition before the season was suspended and there’s no reason to think that the break will cause them to significantly drop off.
The Bucks should be favorited in the East but, still, the Celtics have a chance. Heck, there are some that have even wagered money on them to win a title, although it’s hardly been a groundswell of support. According to Bet MGM, 5.8% of bettors have bet on Boston winning a title this year. That’s good enough for fifth place, but it’s far below the Bucks at 16.8%. (LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, to the surprise of nobody, have a whopping 31.0% of bets, which probably has at least something to do with the fact that this is partially a popularity contest.)
If the Celtics want to even reach the NBA Finals, it will almost certainly mean having to go through the Bucks, whether in the Conference Finals or even earlier. Because of this, tonight’s game could potentially mean more than the re-start of Boston’s season. A victory tonight would go a long way in showing that this particular team has a chance to beat the odds.