Sunday, December 10

Brian Robb: Khris Middleton injury creates golden opportunity for Celtics playoff path

BOSTON — The Celtics’ path to the Eastern Conference Finals looked to be a gauntlet after the team secured the No. 2 seed with a win on the final day of the regular season. That victory over the Memphis Grizzlies secured a first-round date with the Brooklyn Nets with the defending champion Bucks looming as a second-round opponent if the team made it out of the first round.

Boston is halfway towards achieving that feat after securing a 2-0 series lead over the Nets with a 114-107 win in Game 2 at TD Garden. However, there were multiple developments in Milwaukee that could have serious ripple effects on the NBA playoff picture, particularly Boston’s path towards a deep run.

The Chicago Bulls pulled off a surprise win over the Bucks in Game 2 in Milwaukee behind a 40-point effort from DeMar DeRozan. However, the defeat wasn’t the Bucks’ biggest loss Wednesday. It was an injury to high-scoring swingman Khris Middleton, who left the game in the fourth quarter after slipping on the floor during a drive to the rim.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said Middleton suffered an MCL sprain and would get an MRI on Thursday to determine the severity. Middleton had 18 points and 8 assists in 33 minutes before the injury.

The Bucks also lost Bobby Portis (right eye abrasion) in the first quarter after an elbow from Tristan Thompson. While that injury does not seem like a long-term issue, the same can’t be said of an MCL sprain.

A lot will depend on the grade of the sprain (which will become clear after the MRI) but even a Grade 1 MCL sprain has caused NBA players to miss an average of two weeks. A Grade 2 sprain has led to four weeks of missed time per the NBA injury site InStreetClothes.

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If it’s a lower grade sprain, it’s possible Middleton could try to play through but it’s safe to say the veteran will be far from 100 percent for the remainder of this postseason run. There is a real chance that Milwaukee could be without him for the rest of their series against the Bulls and perhaps beyond.

Milwaukee invited a first-round date with the Bulls after tanking the final day of the regular season. Now, they appear to be in for a grind of a series with Middleton’s availability in doubt and George Hill (abdomen) sidelined indefinitely.

The Bucks can surely beat the Bulls without those two players but the toll on the rest of the Milwaukee roster would be much greater along the way. That’s a welcome development for the Celtics who remain in control of their tough matchup against the Nets.

Boston is 40-1 in franchise history when taking a 2-0 series lead with the only loss coming in the Eastern Conference Finals against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving holding court in 2022, it’s a bit dangerous to look past the first round right now for Boston. However, it’s hard not to see a favorable path emerging for the Celtics to work their way to the Eastern Conference Finals with less resistance than expected.

The Nets have squandered key opportunities for wins in Boston with fourth-quarter collapses and could pack it in if the Celtics find a way to steal a game on the road in Brooklyn

If the Celtics find a way to win the series in five games, they could end up being rested and healthy for the second round with a healthy Rob Williams looming as a wildcard if he’s cleared to return.

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Meanwhile, the Bucks are in for a fight without Middleton, with no guarantees they make it out of the first round after losing homecourt advantage. Whether the shorthanded Bucks or Bulls make it out of the tied series that’s now headed back to Chicago, the Celtics at full strength would be considerable favorites over either squad, if they can close things out against the Nets.

The Celtics played it straight a week ago when it came to the postseason path. Now, after years of injury luck going against Boston in the playoffs, the tide may be starting to turn in their favor as a golden opportunity emerges.

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