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Preview: Celtics-Bucks

03.09.10 at 11:05 am ET

Quick: Who is the hottest team in the Eastern Conference? The Celtics, who have won four straight and seven of their last 10? Nope. The Cavs? The Magic? No and no. The hottest team in the Eastern Conference is the Milwaukee Bucks and has been since the trade deadline when the acquired John Salmons from the Bulls.

The addition of Salmons has given the Bucks a much-needed perimeter threat to take the pressure off rookie point guard Brandon Jennings and also aided the development of Andrew Bogut, who is putting it all together in his fifth season. The Bucks have played great defense all season. They rank third in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) and their low-risk (fourth best at not turning it over), deliberate offensive sets don’t hurt their defensive rep either.

While Salmons gives them a shooter and a scorer that they lacked, the other reason for their success has been the play of backup point guard Luke Ridnour, who has been one of the best-kept secrets in the NBA. Ridnour is in the midst of a career-season and since Bucks coach Scott Skiles knows what he’s doing, Ridnour’s also plays crunch-time minutes when the situation arises.

A few weeks ago, the Bobcats looked like the emerging team in the bottom five of the East. Now that team appears to be the Bucks, a young team playing well with a solid coach and nothing to lose. That’s a tough combination in a first-round playoff matchup.

CELTICS (40-21, 7-3 last 10)

Points Per Game: 98.4

Points Allowed: 93.8

Differential: +4.6 (6th)

Offensive Efficiency: 106.9 (14th)

Defensive Efficiency: 101.9 (1st)

Pace: 91.6 (22nd)

Likely Starters: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins

Injuries: None.

BUCKS (33-29, 9-1 last 10)

Points Per Game: 98.1

Points Allowed: 96.5

Differential: +1.6 (13th)

Offensive Efficiency: 104.5 (23rd)

Defensive Efficiency: 102.8 (3rd)

Pace: 907. (26th)

Likely Starters: Brandon Jennings, John Salmons, Carlos Delfino, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Andrew Bogut

Injuries: Michael Redd (Knee surgery, out)Key Matchup: Rajon Rondo vs. Brandon Jennings

Skiles keeps the ball in his point guard’s hands in his team’s halfcourt sets and runs high pick and rolls constantly. That places an inordinate amount of pressure on the 20-year-old Jennings who all things considered has handled the responsibility fairly well. Yet Rondo is a better player and he should own this matchup. There’s a perception that Rondo only gets up for marquee matchups. Whether that’s fair or not, the reality is that he will have a lot to do in this game, both offensively and defensively, and he will need to play well for the Celtics to win.

The Celtics in (two) Paragraph(s): Does beating a bad team with a frantic comeback at home after you played like garbage for 42 minutes give you hope? It sure seemed like it did for the Celtics Sunday night. Paul Pierce brought up an interesting point after the game, which is that even though the Celtics “know” how to win games like that, this current Celtics team had not done it yet, so it was a good thing for them to accomplish.

Can a team know how to win games if they don’t win them? That’s the essence of the argument against thinking that a team should try to “turn it on and turn it off.” There’s a false sense of security associated with it, very much like the student who doesn’t study and expects to ace the test because they’ve always done it, and in the Celtics case, “always” is really only one year. So, was beating the Wizards in the manner that they did important? Again, it sure felt that way.

The Bucks in a Paragraph: Take another look at Ridnour’s numbers: 10.6 points, 4 assists in 21 minutes. Nothing special, right? Look deeper: 48 percent FG, 38 percent from 3-pt, 93 percent from the FT line. He’s using a higher percentage of possessions in Skiles’ point guard dominated offense and shooting better, creating more and turning it over less, albeit it in fewer minutes. If Ridnour’s not a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, it’s a sign that voters are still fixated on scoring averages and not on production.

What to Watch For: The Bucks shoot a high number of 3-pointers and also get on the offensive glass better than most teams. The Celtics will need to defend the arc and also keep a body on Bogut and Moute. They are also very patient and the Celtics will need to run when the opportunity presents itself or they will get sucked into a slow, halfcourt game.

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