Three things to look for as the shorthanded Celtics face the red-hot Bucks

The two teams with the best records in the NBA will clash Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. EST at Fiserv Forum.

There’s certainly a chance someone other than the Celtics or Bucks will make the Eastern Conference Finals, but this year in particular, it seems as though these teams are destined to meet on that stage. My two-cents is that whoever wins the series will win it all.

Only time will tell, but this matchup feels like a preview for something bigger – albeit a significantly altered version due to the Celtics’ latest extensive injury report.

Boston (41-16) has won four straight, and 15 of 19, without several of its usual suspects. Milwaukee (39-17) has won 10 straight, and 12 of 13, to move within 1.5 games of the Celtics.

This one could have seeding implications long term. If the Celtics pull out an improbable win, they take the season series. If the Bucks take care of business, a March 30 matchup will decide which team gets the 1-seed if they end up tying.

Here are three things to look for from a game that could be highly competitive or could be tough sledding for the Celtics:

1) Who plays and who sits?

The Celtics are taking this whole “next man up” thing a bit too literally.

The latest injury report has Jayson Tatum out with a non-COVID illness, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart still out and Al Horford and Robert Williams questionable on part one of a back-to-back.

Enter Sam Hauser. He may have to drop 30 (no, seriously; that’s not hyperbole). Hypothetically, if everyone on that list is out, it could mean the Celtics go with a starting five along the lines of Derrick White, Malcolm Brogdon, Hauser, Grant Williams and Blake Griffin, with Payton Pritchard, Mike Muscala and Luke Kornet off the bench. Where’s Justin Jackson when you need him?

Giannis Antetokounmpo is salivating as he reads Celtics Blog.

With all due respect to those players, the Celtics will certainly have their work cut out for them regardless of who’s out there. If Horford and Robert Williams play, that will certainly help a great deal.

2) Can Derrick White keep it rolling?

One guy who will be out there doing his thing is ironman Derrick White (I’m truly sorry if this ends up being a jinx).

The Eastern Conference Player of the Week has been on a tear, to say the least.

He racked up 24.5 points, 7.5 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game last week and is playing some of the best ball of his career. Not only has his consistency been impressive, but it’s also been necessary with so many key players sidelined.

White’s performance against the Grizzlies was particularly noteworthy, as he started slowly but ended up finishing with 23 points and 10 assists.

In Celtics wins, White is averaging 12.5 points, 4 assists and 3.5 rebounds, while shooting 49.2 percent from the field and 43.2 percent from 3-point range. In losses, those numbers dip considerably, to 9.1 points, 3.1 assists and 2.9 rebounds, while shooting 35 percent from the field and 28.4 percent from 3.

That’s all you need to know. When White goes, more often than not, so do the Celtics. Can he continue his torrid stretch against an elite team in the Bucks?

3) Just how deep is this roster?

Building off item No. 1…Perhaps the most impressive part of this recent hot streak has been the way the Celtics have continued to cook regardless of who’s on the floor.

Hauser, Muscala and Pritchard have all taken an opportunity and run with it. Griffin has had his moments. Tatum, Grant Williams and Horford have altered their roles slightly to give the team whatever it needs.

It really is impressive how the Celtics maintain their habits regardless of who’s playing. We all know they’re not the same team without Brown and Smart, but they play the same style. The standard doesn’t change.

Will that continue against the Bucks, with Tatum now out as well? It won’t be easy. This Milwaukee team is the biggest threat to Boston to win a title, and something tells me Antetokounmpo will be ready for this one. Just a hunch.

Feel free to comment if you disagree, or tweet at me afterward, but I’ve got the Bucks, regardless of which of those Celtics on the report end up playing.

Beating Milwaukee on the road is tough in general, and doing so without several key players will be even more difficult.

If the Celtics somehow find a way, a new contender could emerge for “most impressive win of the season.”

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