|Bucks, Celtics collide in Eastern Conference headliner|
The Milwaukee Bucks boasted the NBA's best record at 53-12 before the league's season was interrupted in March due to concerns surrounding COVID-19.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks bid to shake off the rust accumulated following a 4 1/2-month absence on Friday when they "host" the Boston Celtics (43-21) near Orlando.
Antetokounmpo and company also will need to acclimate themselves to a different set of circumstances than when they last played in March. That being, residing in a bubble and competing without a live audience watching their every move.
"Doesn't matter what happens outside the lines, you lose yourself in the game," Antetokounmpo said. "As we play more, we'll get used to it."
The Bucks likely will have time to adjust when they begin an eight-game stretch during the NBA's 22-team restart. Milwaukee holds a comfortable 6 1/2-game lead over second-place Toronto, while Boston resides three games behind the Raptors and 2 1/2 in front of fourth-place Miami.
Milwaukee might need the cushion without Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton, both of whom tested positive for COVID-19 and were late arrivals to Florida. Head coach Mike Budenholzer said both players will miss Friday's game and it was still unknown when either player will be active for the Bucks.
Antetokounmpo remains on the fast track toward becoming the NBA's first back-to-back MVP since Stephen Curry in 2015-16. The 25-year-old averaged a robust 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game this season.
Antetokounmpo collected 32 points and 17 rebounds and fellow All-Star Khris Middleton added 23 points in Milwaukee's 128-123 victory over Boston on Jan. 16. Middleton also had 26 points in the Bucks' 116-105 setback to the Celtics on Oct. 30.
All-Star guard Kemba Walker excelled in both contests for Boston, scoring 21 of 32 points in the second half of the October meeting before erupting for 40 in the January tilt. Walker (21.2 points per game) likely will see his minutes monitored as he nurses a sore left knee that has lingered since the start of the calendar year.
Jayson Tatum (23.6 points, 7.1 rebounds) aims to regain his hot hand, as he recorded 30 or more points in six of his final eight games before the league was paused in March. Jaylen Brown (20.4), Gordon Hayward (17.3) and Marcus Smart (13.5) are also averaging double-digit point totals for the Celtics.
"Just like in a fight, you get your head hit a few times, you're going to change it up and start protecting your body from those head shots," Smart said as his team gets ready for games that count. "We're trying to put the fire under our butts and get us back to that urgency we need."
Milwaukee was still working out the kinks in Monday's scrimmage, a 124-103 setback to New Orleans.
While how much stock should be placed in that decision is up for debate, the Bucks know they have bigger fish to fry if they wish to capture their first NBA title since 1971.
"Obviously losing is a bad thing, but I think it's going to be good just moving forward just to know we have to play at our high level, it doesn't matter who we ," forward Ersan Ilyasova said. "I think this is one of those games, like, a wake-up call for us. We're here for one reason, obviously, to win a championship."
--Field Level Media