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NBA: Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

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The NBA’s realest drama remains on the court

A Bucks vs. Celtics battle was exactly what we needed after the All-Star break.

The Bucks and Celtics played each other on Thursday night in a game that featured clutch shot-making, playoff-level defense, and late-game controversy. It was everything you’d want in a mid-season showdown between two contenders. That it came at the moment when the league shakes off the All-Star week hangover and finally gets serious for the final stretch only added to its urgency.

In the final three minutes alone there were four lead changes, one tie, and a bizarre 3.7 seconds that included: a blown shot-clock interpretation, an offensive foul by Kyrie Irving that led to a defensive foul by Khris Middleton — both of which went uncalled — and then two missed shooting fouls on Irving’s last-second attempt that never would have happened if either the shot clock or the offensive foul had been called correctly.

There were also numerous strategic talking points to dissect along with a signature moment from MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose at-the-rim block of a Jayson Tatum breakaway dunk helped secure a one-point Milwaukee victory.

To be sure, most of the night wasn’t nearly that dramatic. Both teams looked like they hadn’t played an NBA game in more than a week and with that came all the loose turnovers and bricked jump shots you can imagine. Still, the chaotic final minutes felt like a prelude to an epic playoff series between two teams that are only a year removed from going seven games.

It was a wonderful sloppy mess that offered a welcome antidote to an All-Star break that featured more hand-wringing about tampering, the continued devolution of the Anthony Davis saga, and the deflating sight of Zion Williamson lying in a heap after the presumptive No. 1 overall pick’s shoe exploded.

All of which is to say, we needed that. We needed the games to matter again because left to our own devices and devoid of meaningful contests, the NBA continued to spin storylines ripped from plot points both real and imagined. It’s around that moment when a hallway conversation between friends becomes an orchestrated coup.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

“C’mon man, you do it for the likes and clicks, everybody does,” Irving said on Wednesday, after a video of his conversation with Kevin Durant was posted online. “Everybody wants to hear me talk like this. Everybody wants to actually talk about bullshit. A video though? To pour water on (speculation)? Makes no sense. It’s not real life. Not real.”

Irving has said a lot of head-scratching things over the last few years but he was right about this. When all we talk about is bullshit, and most of what’s said before July 1 is meaningless, what’s left to really discuss?

The Bucks and C’s gave us a well-timed reminder that the games are the realest currency in this morally bankrupt world of conjured conspiracies and idle speculation. Especially in the Eastern Conference where the matchup possibilities are endlessly fascinating.

Consider that the Celtics own the Sixers, but haven’t won in Toronto in almost four years. Or that the Raps went 3-1 against Philly, but only 1-3 against Milwaukee. While the Sixers have struggled against the other contenders, that was before they added Tobias Harris to their star-studded starting lineup. The Pacers, meanwhile, are still lurking with their strong defense and high-IQ roster ready to upset anyone who dares overlook them.

With apologies to the Raptors and leaving open the possibility that the Sixers will gel Voltron-style between now and April, the Bucks and the Celtics have the look of the two best teams in the conference. Milwaukee owns the best record and top point-differential, while Boston has been almost as good since Nov. 26 when they began to salvage their season with a road win over New Orleans.

What’s fascinating about these two teams is they are polar opposites in nearly every respect. The Bucks have outperformed every conceivable expectation with unabashed joy, while the Celtics have underachieved through a campaign that’s featured multiple public airings of internal distress.

The Bucks are the only team in the league that hasn’t lost consecutive games, a level of consistency that few saw for this team coming into this season. The Celtics, on the other hand, have been both streaky and occasionally sketchy. Their inconsistent play has been a far cry from the anticipated plug-and-play juggernaut.

With every starter except for Antetokounmpo heading for free agency this summer, the Bucks have gone all-in this season. In December, they dumped salary and acquired a solid veteran in George Hill who has stabilized their second units around a commitment to defense. And in February, general manager Jon Horst acquired Niko Mirotic from the Pelicans for a stash of second-round picks.

For reasons of practicality and also the promise of prying AD from New Orleans this summer, the Celtics have not gone all-in this season, electing to stand pat through the summer and at the deadline while everyone else loaded up. Minus the first quarter of the season and leaving aside all the other stuff — admittedly it’s a lot of stuff — the C’s are still a deep team loaded with playoff experience. There’s a reason people keep coming back to them despite their petty squabbles.

The on-court strategies also take divergent paths. Under Brad Stevens, the Celtics employ the modern tactic of switching every defensive assignment. They did so while continuing to play Antetokounmpo straight up and daring the other Bucks to beat them. That they did when Middleton buried an above-the break 3-pointer that proved to be the game-winner. The same Khris Middleton who nearly broke Boston in last season’s playoff.

The Bucks, meanwhile, resist switching in favor of dropping their big men into the paint, a Mike Budenholzer staple. Because they rarely foul, the Bucks are successful in taking two of the three most prized shots away from their opponents: dunks and free throws.

The Celtics don’t do much of either, so they happily accepted the open invitation to fire away, notably on the pick-and-pop between Irving and Al Horford that may hold the key in a playoff matchup.

It all came down to those final climatic seconds where everything seemed to be happening at once and no one had any clue what they were watching. Give us seven games of that. Give us Giannis racing down the court for chase-down blocks and Kyrie unspooling corkscrew jumpers. Give us Horford stretching the floor and Middleton working the mid-range. Give us Bud and Brad trying to force the other to adjust their tactics.

Hell, we’re not greedy. We’ll take anything we can get. Give us the Raptors and Celtics finally meeting in a postseason series. Give us JoJo Embiid battling Marc Gasol, or Kawhi Leonard trying to lock down the Freak. Give us Eric Bledsoe muscling Kyle Lowry out of the paint or Ben Simmons towering over all of them.

Give us any of it. We need it all after this season.

SAY WHAT?I

“Is the internet real for you, in your life?”

Kyrie Irving.

Reaction: I took All-Star weekend off for the first time in six years and completely unplugged from the NBA. Before Kyrie’s quotestorm, I had no idea there was a video of him and Kevin Durant talking, and I don’t feel the need to go hunt it down. The internet is why we’re all here, but it doesn’t have to run our lives.

“Knowing what I know now, college basketball is bullsh-t.”

DeMarcus Cousins, in the aftermath of Zion Williamson’s injury.

Reaction: It’s worth listening to the whole video because Cousins makes a number of valid points, including the acknowledgment that he enjoyed his time in college. In what the league says is coincidence, they submitted a proposal to the NBPA the day after Zion’s injury to lower the minimum age to 18 years old. That’s a collective bargaining issue and one both sides should work to get right.

“How am I going to keep Isaiah Thomas off the floor? I’m not. He’s here for a reason. We’ll figure it out.”

Denver coach Michael Malone.

Reaction: The Nuggets have a numbers problem. They have too many guys. With Thomas and Gary Harris coming back from injuries, they go 12-deep and have received contributions from a diverse group of players including Monte Morris and Malik Beasley who are enjoying breakthrough seasons. Managing those minutes will be an interesting test for Malone. (By the way, I’ve watched this video of Malone draining a jumper on Jamal Murray daily for a dose of middle-aged affirmation.)

“I do want to win a championship, but it’s other stuff that means more to me. It’s almost like I’m not willing to sell myself out for that.”

Portland guard Damian Lilllard on Chris Haynes’ Posted Up podcast.

Reaction: At some point, maybe, people will listen to Dame when he consistently makes this point that there are things more important in his life than winning championships. The dude is just different and maybe we should all appreciate his well-balanced perspective.

“It’s lingering, and it’s something that has to be looked at for sure. For sure, it’s personal. For sure. I don’t think he should be able to even officiate our games anymore, honestly.”

James Harden discussing referee Scott Foster after fouling out of a game on Thursday.

Reaction: While not unprecedented, it’s been a while since we had a player-ref feud of this magnitude. You may recall that the league took Joey Crawford off the floor after a run-in with Tim Duncan. Old heads surely remember the nastiness between Clyde Drexler and Jake O’Donnell. Those were different times. It will be interesting to see how the league handles this one.

THE LIST

Consumable NBA Thoughts

With only a third of the season left to play, we have ourselves an honest-to-goodness race for Most Valuable Player. With three deserving candidates at the top and a half-dozen more lingering around the fringes, the MVP conversation is one we’ll be having often over the next two months. Let’s have fun with it and not turn it into a flame war. Cool? Here’s where things stand for me, with the caveat that I’m keeping an open mind about all of it as this unfolds.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

I’ve had Giannis on top of my unofficial MVP rankings since mid-November and he’s given me no reason to drop him from the perch. There’s been no drop-off in play or league-wide adjustment to consistently slow him down. He’s also a monster defensively. If anything, Antetokounmpo’s value has only increased as his Bucks assumed control of the regular season. Milwaukee is 13.7 points better than their opponents when Giannis is on the court, the highest individual net rating in the league. The Bucks are only three points better when he sits, essentially the difference between a good team and the best in the league. That’s a crude metric, but I’m rolling with the best player on the best team having arguably the best season. For now.

James Harden

Like Giannis, there’s no objective reason to deny Harden the top spot. He’s been so brilliant offensively that his campaign defies simple comparison. Even in this hyper-inflated era, no one has ever played like this. Nor have they remained this efficient or so long. You can quibble about the aesthetics of Harden’s game, but not his importance. Before his surge, there were legitimate arguments that the Rockets were toast. He’s carried them back from the brink. It’s been Harden’s bad luck to play in an era when his best season have been overshadowed by other historic campaigns — Steph Curry in 2015, Russell Westbrook in 2017 — and now, possibly Giannis, as well.

Paul George

I’m not sure what PG needs to do to break into the top two. Play out of his mind? Sure, but George has been doing that. He’s averaging 34-8-5 over the last month and that’s with 2.5 steals a game and 45 percent shooting from 3-point range. The numbers are so outrageous across the board for the top 3 MVP contenders that PG’s exploits have been, if not glossed over, hardly celebrated with the same vigor as the top two. That may be changing. PG has a third of the season left to continue changing our minds about what kind of player he’s been this season. It’s led him to the top three and that’s a level few of us ever thought he’d reach. That’s no reason to put a cap on him either.

Kevin Durant/Steph Curry

The old saw that KD is objectively “better,” while Curry is arguably more “important,” to the Warriors holds some measure of truth. It’s also an easy way to avoid the question. If pressed, I’d have KD fourth and Curry fifth simply because he’s played more games and more than 400 more minutes. I don’t feel that strongly about it either. Maybe someday we’ll be able to look back and appreciate how these two megastars gave each other enough rope to continue being great. Right now it just feels like overkill.

Everyone else

Nikola Jokic has been a beast for the Nuggets. He is someone you really need to watch to appreciate. Joel Embiid has been for Philly, as well. Hopefully his leg injury won’t keep him out long. Damian Lillard has reached a sustained level of excellence that should be celebrated. You can make arguments for any of them to be “in the conversation” and I won’t object to how you rank them. I might even throw Rudy Gobert in there, but not ahead of the other two big men. Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard have both been outstanding, but they’ve missed a few too many games to crack the top five. LeBron James remains LeBron James, minus the 18 games he’s missed. That’s a healthy list, all subject to change in April.

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