The Boston Celtics will resume the 2019-2020 NBA season cloaked in optimism.
Amid the celebration of basketball’s imminent return is confidence in a Boston team that is one of the most well-rounded in the NBA and presents a serious challenge to the Eastern Conference’s top team.
What do sportsbooks say about Boston?
DraftKings, which was founded in Massachusetts and maintains its headquarters there, has the Celtics with the fifth-best odds to win the NBA championship at +2,000.
Four teams sit ahead of Boston, although odds-makers have made clear their trio of frontrunners:
• Los Angeles Lakers: +250
• Milwaukee Bucks: +250
• Los Angeles Clippers: +333
• Houston Rockets: +1300
FanDuel offers similar odds, with the Celtics again sitting at +2,000. The book does offer variation at the top of the league:
• Milwaukee Bucks: +240
• Los Angeles Lakers: +260
• Los Angeles Clippers: +340
• Houston Rockets: +1300
Here’s a look at DraftKings Sportsbook’s odds on which team will represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals:
• Milwaukee Bucks: -165
• Boston Celtics: +700
• Toronto Raptors: +700
• Miami Heat: +900
• Philadelphia 76ers: +900
At 7-1, Celtics enticing as challenger to Bucks
The Celtics offer excellent value for anyone confident Boston can upend reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and a Milwaukee team which sat at 53-12 before play stopped March 11.
Still, Milwaukee is far from Boston’s only challenger in the East.
That list includes the reigning champion Toronto Raptors, who have the conference’s second-best record and top-rated defense, as well as a talented Miami Heat team.
Accompanying Toronto and Miami is a dangerous if faltering 76ers squad and an Indiana Pacers franchise that will now have a rested and healthy Victor Oladipo.
But those teams have questions: no Kawhi Leonard for Toronto; an unproven young core in Miami; and severe ups-and-downs in both Philly and Indy.
It all lines up for a Boston-Milwaukee challenge for the Eastern Conference crown.
The Bucks, meanwhile, will lose their enormous home-court advantage (28-3 this year at downtown Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum) when play resumes in Orlando. Losing that edge could cause problems for a team that is without Boston’s scoring diversity.
“In a neutral situation, the way the season is about to be shotgunned and start again, I’m taking the Celtics in the East,” said ESPN’s Jalen Rose, despite last year’s East semis, when Milwaukee defeated Boston 4 games to 1.
“One of the great things about the Bucks, of course, their game does travel, but their home court was a huge advantage for them, a major advantage.”
“And if we’re playing pickup ball and the Celtics’ and the Bucks’ players are in a gym, I’m going to pick Giannis but the next four or five picks going to be Celtics.”
Bucks vs. Celtics: How do the numbers stack up?
The most realistic, best value bet for many Celtics bettors will be for Boston to take advantage of a wacky playoff environment and skate past Milwaukee into the Finals.
The Celtics are the only team in the East to sport three 20-ppg scorers, led by one of the game’s brightest young stars, Jayson Tatum (23.6), alongside Kemba Walker (21.2) and Jaylen Brown (20.4).
That three-headed attack is complemented by a host of seasoned veterans that includes Gordon Hayward (17.3) and Marcus Smart (13.5), both capable of playing vital playoff roles.
That’s not to say the Bucks have a crew of slouches behind Antetokounmpo, who is likely to win another MVP with his 29.6, 13.7, and 5.8 stat line.
All-star Khris Middleton averages 21.1 ppg as the team’s second-leading scorer, followed by Eric Bledsoe (15.4) and veterans Brook Lopez (11) and George Hill (9.6 and an NBA-leading 48 percent from three).
Middleton’s player efficiency rating (PER) at 21.5 also exceeds Tatum’s, whose PER resides at 20.41.
A scenario where Middleton outperforms Tatum would be disastrous for Boston, who would need a dominant performance from their small forward in a potential Celtics-Bucks matchup.
No chance without stopping Antetokounmpo
Also troubling for Boston is their lack of an Antetokounmpo stopper.
A playoff victory this year would take a significant defensive improvement.
Still, there is hope.
Smart is a great defender who has previously shown a willingness to be physical with Antetokounmpo, frustrating him into turnovers and keeping his 7’3 wingspan away from the rim.
And they have Brad Stevens, a brilliant coaching mind capable of scheming complex game plans to keep the ball away from Antetokounmpo.
A roadmap was certainly created during last year’s Eastern Conference Finals when Leonard and the Raptors showed the league a physical style of defense. That limited Antetokounmpo’s trips to the line, slowed him in transition, and forced the ball from his hands.