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Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley return to lineup for Celtics against Cavaliers, who will be without big man Tristan Thompson 04.05.17 at 8:01 pm ET
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LeBron James is always a challenge.  (Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports)

LeBron James is always a challenge. (Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports)

For most, Wednesday’s showdown between the Celtics and Cavaliers is considered Boston’s most important game of the season. 

But for Celtics coach Brad Stevens, this battle for the top seed in the Eastern Conference is just another game. 

With Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder both expected to start, Stevens’ starting five will be at full strength against the champion Cavaliers, who will be playing without big man Tristan Thompson (sprained thumb). But according to Stevens, preparation for taking on the champs is no different than any other opponent. Both squads are 50-27.

“We don’t talk big game/small game, we talk about the next game and trying to do the best that we can against our opponent,” Stevens said. “I know that sounds really boring but that’s the way I look at it — the way I go about it. These have all grown up playing big games their whole lives.”

After some speculation of whether coach Ty Lue would rest his guys, the Cavaliers are expected to start all of their big three members in LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. However, Stevens says Cleveland’s second unit — which has been plagued by injuries since the All-Star break — is often overlooked.

“Those guys are great players,” Stevens said. “No one talks about it, but when we beat them, they didn’t have [J.R.] Smith. They’re going to continue to round in form as those guys are back playing together and now their getting fully healthier with [Kyle] Korver back and everyone else. It’s a really tough team to play against.”

Having Crowder back definitely helps.

“I just think Jae’s really important in general because he allows us what we just talked about with Cleveland,” Stevens explained. “Cleveland is — obviously Golden State, maybe a couple of others — the best at being able to play a bunch of different ways and Jae allows us to play different ways because of his ability to play both the 3 and swing to the 4.”

When asked about the possibility of resting his guys before the start of the postseason, Stevens said he’s given it very little thought, but will continue to check in with his medical staff and make sure his team is at full strength come playoff time.

Read More: Cavaliers, Celtics, Eastern Conference standings, Jae Crowder
Celtics come up short down the stretch in loss to Bucks 03.29.17 at 11:00 pm ET
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Mar 29, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Tony Snell (21) and guard Malcolm Brogdon (13) celebrate after Brogdon hit a shot with 3.9 seconds left in the second half of the Milwaukee Bucks 103-100 win over the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Malcolm Brogdon scored six of Milwaukee’s final eight points in the fourth quarter (Winslow Townson/USA Today)

After erasing a 14-point deficit, the Celtics couldn’t put a lid on Milwaukee’s inside scoring and came up short in the final minute of regulation. 

Celtics made two consecutive defensive stops in the final minute — one by Al Horford on All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo and the other was a 24-second violation — and Isaiah Thomas’ layup pulled the Celtics to within one point (101-100). Just when you thought the Celtics had one more stop left in them, Bucks rookie Malcolm Brogdon hit a 16-foot jumper as the shot clock expired that gave the Bucks a three-point lead with three ticks left. 

In the final play of the night, Boston’s inbound pass to Thomas was deflected and ended up in the hands of Marcus Smart, who double-pumped a desperation 3-pointer that was nowhere near the rim as time expired. The Bucks defeated the Celtics, 103-100 and are now tied with the Hawks for fifth place in the Eastern Conference. 

Meanwhile, the Celtics are now in a virtual tie with the Cavaliers for the top spot. Bucks snapped a four-game winning streak. 

The C’s had a hard time trying to contain Antetokounmpo as he cruised to 22 points on 8-of-17 shots. He led four Bucks in double figures, getting help from Khris Middleton (19 points), Brogdon (16 points) and Greg Monroe (16 points). 

Thomas dropped a game-high 32 points, Jae Crowder scored 13 points, Avery Bradley notched a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) and Horford chipped in 11 points. 

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Read More: Celtics, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Malcolm Brogdon,
Celtics pregame: Stevens on facing Giannis Antetokounmpo, ‘Don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody like him’ 03.29.17 at 7:27 pm ET
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Mar 28, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) reacts to a foul call in the second half against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center. The Bucks defeated the Hornets 118-108. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Giannis Antetokounmpo joins Russell Westbrook and James Harden as one of only three players in the league averaging at least 23 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists this season (Jeremy Brevard/USA Today)

The Celtics will undoubtedly have their hands full on Wednesday as they gear up to face one of the hottest teams in the league.

Fresh off their 118-108 win at Charlotte, the Bucks will look to make it two in a row against the Celtics on the second night of a back-to-back. Celtics coach Brad Stevens couldn’t say enough about Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo — who is probably the biggest reason why Milwaukee has gone from a lottery team to the fifth best team in the Eastern Conference.

“He does some things,” Stevens said. “That’s the best way to say it. He keeps adding to it. Him in transition is like, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody like him.”

The Greek Freak enters Wednesday’s game averaging 23.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists. Russell Westbrook and James Harden and the only other players averaging 23-plus points, 8-plus rebounds and 5-plus assists.

“As he’s become more skilled,” Stevens said. “He continues to put you in a worst bind. He’s tough; he’s good.” 

Milwaukee’s supporting cast has also been a key to their success. The return of Khris Middleton (left hamstring) has definitely helped throughout their recent stretch, rookie Malcom Brogdon (10.2 points) has emerged as a reliable outside threat and Greg Monroe is embracing his newfound 6th man role — averaging 12 points and 6.7 rebounds off the bench.

Middleton has been on fire this month, averaging 16.8 points and shooting 46.5 percent from the floor, including 40.9 percent from behind the arc.

“Middleton spaces the floor, he can run off screens and score,” Stevens said. “He’s a really good scorer cutting off the ball. He’s gotten better, I think, as time’s gone on in pick-and-roll and with the ball. And then he’s a knockdown shooter.”

The Bucks (38-36) have won 12 of their last 15 games. In what could be a possible first-round matchup for the Celtics, Boston will get another crack at beating Milwaukee in their final game of the regular season on April 12.

Read More: Brad Stevens, Giannis Antetokounmpo,
Front court steps up big in win over Heat, Celtics now tied with Cavs for No. 1 03.26.17 at 8:59 pm ET
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Mar 26, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder (99) grabs a rebound on Miami Heat guard Rodney McGruder (17) grabs a rebound during the second half of the Boston Celtics 112-108 win over the Miami Heat at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Jae Crowder scored a season-high 25 points in Celtics win over the Heat (Winslow Townson/USA Today)

It’s not something you see on a consistent level but when the Celtics front court put together the kind of production we saw against the Heat — on both ends of the floor — Boston is very difficult to beat. 

Anchored by Jae Crowder, the Celtics front line was sensational against the Heat and made all the difference in the second half, where the C’s grabbed their first double-digit lead and eventually their 48th win of the season. After beating the Heat 112-108, the Celtics now hold the most wins in the Eastern Conference and are tied with the Cavaliers for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Crowder got it going early, knocking in mid-range jump shots and easy layups in transition. He also forced turnovers on the other end (two steals, two blocks) and his intensity was contagious. Crowder finished with 25 points on 8-of-13 attempts, including 3-of-5 from deep to go with his 6 rebounds.

With 3:53 left in the game, Crowder drained a 3-pointer to recapture the Celtics lead (102-101) and ignited the loudest roar of the night at TD Garden. From there, Thomas took care of the rest — scoring six of the following eight points for the Celtics (108-105) and before the Heat attempted to make a final push Boston’s defense made a crucial stop that led to a loose ball foul on Goran Dragic.

Marcus Smart split the pair but on the rebound of the second attempt, Heat center Hassan Whiteside appeared to have grabbed the ball early before letting it bounce off the rim. After officials’ review, Whiteside was whistled for goaltending and the Celtics were awarded two points and a two-possession game.  

Thomas scored a game-high 30 points but Crowder’s play, along with the rest of the starting front line, certainly stood out the most on Sunday. It complimented Thomas’ scoring and exemplified how tough the Celtics are when Crowder, Horford and Johnson are on point. 

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Devin Booker’s historic 70 points still not enough for Suns to top Celtics 03.24.17 at 11:51 pm ET
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(Josue Pavon/Weei.com)

Not even 70 points from Suns guard Devin Booker could bring his team close to grabbing a lead — Phoenix never had a chance at winning the game — but the incredible individual performance by Phoenix’s young star is one the Celtics franchise has never seen before.

From tip-off until the final buzzer, the Celtics dominated the lowly Suns while giving them little to no hope of closing their deficit and turned in what should have been their most lopsided victory of the season.

Boston still managed to hold onto a double-digit win — 130-120 — and improved to 47-26 on the season, still one game behind the Cavaliers for first place in the conference but Boston’s poor defense at the end of the fourth quarter propelled Booker to reach historic heights. 

Booker’s career-high 70 points marks the highest scoring performance in Suns franchise history and is the most any player has ever scored against the Celtics.

However, poor defense down the stretch led the Celtics to commit silly fouls as each player took turns in trying to slow down Booker but instead were biting on his up-fakes and sending him the free-throw line. One play that stood out happened when the Celtics led by 13 points (128-115) with 42 seconds left. Isaiah Thomas jumped all over Booker when he fell for yet another pump fake and sent him to the line so that he could inch closer to 70.

Although Booker was phenomenal, hitting 21-of-40 from the floor, 24-of-26 from the charity stripe, he couldn’t have reached this milestone without help from the Celtics. He topped off the C’s with 28 fourth-quarter points, 18 in the final four minutes, including 8-of-9 from the free-throw line.

In the game’s opening seven minutes, the Celtics leaped out a 20-point lead (25-5) and spent most of the first half protecting it. Gerald Green caught fire from deep — knocking down 4-of-4 from behind the arc, including a four-point play as the Celtics took a 66-43 advantage into halftime. 

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Read More: Boston Celtics, Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns,
Impressive win over Pacers proves Celtics have a shot at grabbing No. 1 seed in the east 03.22.17 at 10:10 pm ET
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Mar 22, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown (7) drives to the basket against Indiana Pacers guard Monta Ellis (11) in the second half at TD Garden. Celtics defeated the Pacers 109-100. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday’s win over the Pacers was a group effort as all nine Celtics players contributed to the 109-100 victory (David Butler II/USA Today)

Don’t look now but the Celtics are now in stride to top the Cavaliers for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. 

With 10 games left in the regular season, the C’s are trailing the champs by one game and are showing no signs of slowing down. In Wednesday night’s 109-100 win over the Pacers, all nine Celtics players played a role in taking care of home court for the second straight night. 

Isaiah Thomas (25 points, 5 assists), Avery Bradley (18 points, 8 rebounds) and Al Horford (15 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists) all turned in typical stat lines but guys like Jae Crowder (15 points, game-high plus-16), Kelly Olynyk (11 points, 8 rebounds, plus-12) and Tyler Zeller (6 points, plus-8) came up big in the second half. They helped push the Celtics to a whopping 39-point third quarter that pushed Boston’s lead to 17 — their largest of the night.

Paul George (37 points) and Jeff Teague combined for 42 points to lead the Pacers but the Celtics’ intensity in the second half disallowed their opponent to regain their first-quarter lead. 

For a complete recap of Wednesday’s win, click here.

The Celtics offense tightened up in the second half, efficiently taking care of possessions and flawlessly rotating the ball for easy layups and open shots. It seemed like every player did their part in either rebounding, finding an open guy or making a defensive stop. 

The team’s second unit made their presence felt in the first half. The Pacers’ back court duo of Monta Ellis and Aaron Brooks found their outside touch but so did Marcus Smart — who drained two back-to-back 3-pointers in the second quarter — and Jaylen Brown took advantage of his size over 6-foot-3 Ellis. 

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Celtics get tough with Wizards to strengthen grip on second seed in Eastern Conference 03.20.17 at 10:25 pm ET
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Mar 20, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) passes the ball past Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley (0) during the first half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Celtics forced 18 Wizards turnovers (Bob DeChiara/USA Today)

For a team that entered Monday night’s game as the fifth-worst rebounding team in the league, the Celtics rarely ever out-rebound their opponent. But when it came to facing the Wizards at home with playoff implications on the line, the C’s looked like a team that just simply wanted it more.

The Celtics not only out-rebounded their opponent, 54-39 but were very physical with the Wizards on defense and made it tough for them to find their offensive rhythm while the C’s cruised to 110-102 victory. For the first time in two years, the Celtics pulled down 20 offensive rebounds. The last time the C’s grabbed 20 or more boards in a winning effort was against the Bulls in the 2009 playoffs. 

With the win, the Celtics (45-26) now hold a 2.5 game advantage over the Wizards for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. 

Sure, the return of Isaiah Thomas (25 points, 2 steals) certainly helped but it wasn’t just the Celtics leading scorer who made a huge impact for the Celtics. Avery Bradley had such an incredible first quarter that Brad Stevens kept him in for its entirety. He scored 11 points, grabbed four rebounds and dished out three assists in the first 12 minutes and finished with 20 points, 9 rebounds and four assists. 

Bradley Beal’s 19 points led the Wizards, John Wall finished with 16 and 8 assists but did most of his damage from the free-throw line — where he netted 8-of-9. 

For a complete recap of Monday’s win, click here.

Up front, Al Horford set the tone by creating stops while also making an effort in boxing guys out in the paint and guys like Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk followed suit. Led by Horford’s 16 points, 9 rebounds, the three big men finished with a combined 23 rebounds and four blocks.

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