Not really-than just happened?
The Bucks beat the Celtics 110-107 on Wednesday, taking a 3-2 series lead.
And seriously—as That happens?
“We beat ourselves up,” Boston guard Marcus Smart said.
Coach Ime Udoka said: “We know we missed a golden opportunity tonight.”
Added forward Jaylen Brown: “We gave it away.”
In a wild and unpredictable NBA playoffs (the Grizzlies beat the Warriors by how many?), this game can top them all. Ten minutes left, Boston up 14 and this game was over. It wasn’t that the Celtics were playing very well. far from there Jayson Tatum had 34 points … but he needed 29 shots to get them. Brown had 26. Al Horford, the Game 4 hero, had eight. Daniel Theis, dusted off again with Robert Williams sidelined, was the only Celtics backup in double figures.
Milwaukee was not capable of a rally. At least they shouldn’t have been. It didn’t have the firepower. At least they didn’t look like it. How many times have we been reminded how great Boston’s defense was? There’s no way the Bucks could go back on that. With Khris Middleton out of the picture, the last few games in this series have been the (Giannis) Antetokounmpo show. He had 42 points in the Game 3 win. He scored 34 in the Game 4 loss. Early in Game 5, the Bucks tried to move the ball. Jrue Holiday had nine points. Grayson Allen had five. Bobby Portis chipped in four off the bench.
But when the Celtics’ defense hardened, Giannis took over. He scored 15 points in the second quarter. The rest of the Bucks scored four. He added 13 in the third. On the move, Antetokounmpo was unstoppable. He dominated the smaller defenders. He Euro-step around the largest. He had 11 rebounds, got to the free throw line 10 times and made almost 60% of his shots.
But he had no help. Through three quarters, only one other Bucks player, Holiday, had made it past double figures. He scored 16 points but needed 16 shots to do it. Wesley Matthews contributed nothing. Brook Lopez was not a factor. Boston had beaten Milwaukee in the final quarters of the previous two games and had the No. 1 defense in the NBA to close out the fight.
Only they didn’t. A 3-pointer by Pat Connaughton with eight minutes remaining cut the lead to single digits. A pair of free throws by Bobby Portis made six. With less than a minute to go, Holiday hit a tying 3-pointer. The Bucks trailed by two when Antetokounmpo went to the free throw line with 14 seconds remaining. He did the first. He missed the second, but Portis, back in the rotation after playing just 15 minutes in Game 4, knocked down the rebound and slammed in again.
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Boston still had a chance. Coming out of a timeout, Smart jumped free at the baseline. He lined up a short runner. And then Holiday, perhaps the best perimeter defender in the NBA not named Smart, showed up to block. “That’s what Jrue does,” says Antetokounmpo. Two free throws by Connaughton stretched the lead to three. A vacation steal from Smart in the closing seconds ended the game.
“Give Milwaukee credit,” Brown said. “They play hard for 48 minutes. We walk away from what we do very late. We were not so determined in the final stretch and it cost us”.
Championship DNA is a phrase that is used loosely in sports. Also loosely. The Bucks just proved it. They could have retired in the fourth quarter. They were ridiculously outmatched. Middleton’s absence forced Antetokounmpo into a steady diet of isolations and pushed Holiday into a second-scoring position in which he’s not really comfortable. A loss in Boston, in a gut-wrenching stadium, would have been forgivable.
But they didn’t fold. The Bucks gave up nine points in the last eight minutes. Antetokounmpo, who has struggled with his 3-point shooting all series, knocked down a big one. Mathews did too. Portis made four free throws in his final eight minutes. Even when the offense is sizzling, the Bucks never lose faith in each other.
“We are always disciplined,” Antetokounmpo said. “We always give everything we have… most of the time we do the right thing. Sometimes it doesn’t go the way we want. I think everyone trusts each other that we’re going to make the right play. That we are going to do the extra pass. That we will always be there regardless of the outcome. I feel like this group, no matter what the outcome is, we can go home and feel good about ourselves. When we watch videos, it’s never about ‘you have to try harder’ or ‘you have to protect this guy better.’ The effort from us, from this team, is always there most of the time”.
The series returns to Milwaukee on Friday and Game 6 looks to be just as tight. These are two elite defenses. It’s Bad Boy’s Pistons vs. the Knicks from the mid-’90s. Pernell Whitaker vs. Floyd Mayweather. The iron curtain against the monsters of Midway. Every possession between these two teams has been a street fight. At one point late in the fourth quarter, Giannis was shot in the side of the eye that drew blood.
But the Bucks have pushed the Celtics to the limit. Boston has shown great determination this season, adjusting to a new coach, overcoming a horrible start, battling COVID-related injuries and illnesses. They will have to show more to beat Milwaukee on their home floor.
The Bucks played like champions on Wednesday.
On Friday we’ll see if the Celtics can do the same.
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