By KYLE HIGHTOWER AP Sports Writer
Much has changed since the Celtics outlasted the Bucks during their seven-game slugfest in the first round of last year’s NBA playoffs.
For starters, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are both healthy after injuries sidelined them for the entire postseason last year.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is having a career season and is one of the leading contenders for league MVP honors
And it is East top-seeded Milwaukee and not Boston that will tipoff Sunday’s Eastern Conference semifinals matchup with home-court advantage and as the favorite to advance to the conference finals.
“A lot of things have changed,” Antetokounmpo said. “They haven’t changed as much. They play great basketball. They defend aggressively. They’re going to play with a lot of pace. Obviously, they have Kyrie this year. We’re just going to go out there, play hard and try to win games.”
And Antetokounmpo has bigger goals than just trying to avenge last year’s first-round loss — though the sting of that setback remains with the Bucks.
“It’s a different situation, but there’s always ego and pride,” he said. “You want to win and avenge the loss last year. I don’t think the guys who were here last year forgot what we went through. We lost Game 7. Hopefully we have that in our mind, focus on what we’ve got to do now and try to win this series. And not repeat what we did last year.”
Milwaukee has thrived in their first season under coach Mike Budenholzer, posting a league-best 60-22 record during the regular season and sweeping the Detroit Pistons in the first round, winning by an average of 24 points per game.
The Celtics had an up and down year but found some missing cohesion during their first-round sweep of Indiana. They’ve been led by big scoring games by Irving, an increased comfort level by Hayward that was missing in the regular season and some late-game poise across the board.
While Irving respects how much the Bucks have improved, he doesn’t see Boston as an underdog just because they are the lower seed.
“To be honest, I don’t really care about the seeding. As long as we’re in there. It’s an even playing field,” he said. “All the regular season stats and the hype around the regular season? You can have it.
“At this point, it’s five versus five, and who’s better at the end of the day.”
Here are some other things to watch for in the Eastern Conference semifinals matchup between Boston and Milwaukee:
Both teams will be short-handed in Game 1. Boston guard Marcus Smart is still recovering from the partial tear to his left oblique abdominal muscle that he suffered on April 7. And Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon is out for Games 1 and 2 as he continues deal with plantar fascia in his right foot.
Smart was originally given a 4- to 6-week recovery window for the injury and sat out the entire first-round series with Indiana. But he was shooting and running sprints after practice on Friday.
Coach Mike Budenholzer said they remain hopeful Brogdon can return at some point during the series.
“He’s been on track but he’s still got some hurdles to cover,” Budenholzer said. “We’ll assess it when we get through this next little wave.”
CLOSE GAMES EXPECTED
The Bucks won two out of the three meetings with Boston during the regular season, with their wins coming by single digits.
Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez believes the familiarity the teams have with each other will play a factor.
“It’s going to be those kind of games where you have to grind it out, earn every possession and you can’t take anything for granted,” he said. “It’s about going out there and outworking the other team.”
NOT JUST ABOUT GIANNIS
As much confidence as the Bucks have in putting the ball in Antetokounmpo’s hands, Khris Middleton said they know everyone will have to be playing at their best to close out games against the Celtics.
In their first-round series the Pistons never got within five points of the Bucks in the final five minutes of any of their four games. The Celtics have had only one double-digit win in the series.
“Last year me and Giannis carried a lot of the load. (Eric Bledsoe) too,” Middleton said. This year we’re a complete team from top to bottom. Giannis is going to do his thing, I’m going to do my thing, Bled is going to do his thing. But the supporting cast is much more ready this year to step up and provide big minutes for us.”
Freelancers Bob Schron in Boston and Charles Gardner in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
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