Three, block, three. With three swift swings at the gut of the Celtics, Giannis Antetokounmpo reminded the team that Milwaukee is not an enviable first-round opponent.
The shockwaves of Milwaukee’s start lingered in Boston’s early shooting. Before Avery Bradley worked his way to the rim on an out-of-bounds play they trailed 11-2, on 1-of-7 shooting.
Stops were hard to find as the Bucks worked four three-pointers in five minutes. Their approach was clear, slow the game down and find Isaiah Thomas on defense. Within moments, it was Thomas and the C’s who found an opening.
Thomas was called for a foul on Malcolm Brogdon, who was backing him down, and when Middleton tried his hand next possession I.T. sent him packing. Four stops, an offensive rebound, a driving floater from Avery Bradley, and back-to-back threes from Thomas and Horford later; the game was tied at 14.
Jumping into a 22-18 lead, Boston pushed to keep the game progressing in their style. The Bucks lit a fire between Thomas’ ears early. His second three in the first quarter pushed Boston ahead for the second time and his spat with the referees over an accused non-call on Antetokounmpo sliding and spinning to the basket on a drive drew him his 13th technical foul. He sat down disgruntled, yet effective, with eight points and two assists in nine minutes.
The first quarter was a push-and-tug. Bucks wrestled to keep the game slow and methodical, opting for Greg Monroe low post sets, while Brad Stevens countered with Tyler Zeller to pump the tires and get them spinning. The opposing strategies resulted in a 24-24 score through 12 minutes.
That tug-of-war propelled into the second with Bucks featuring their shooting and passing. Matthew Dellavedova swung two passes around the perimeter setting up a pair of stand-up threes from Mirza Teletovic. In the paint, Middleton reached the rim on a hand-off, give-and-go from Monroe. Middleton then drove deep underneath the defense and swung to a cutting Teletovic for two as the defense collapsed. The style had swung backward again and Boston was down 10 again.
Boston’s 9-of-27 shooting start exacerbated their defensive issues. Bucks forced seven steals in under 18 minutes, the team missed routine jumpers especially off creative passing from Marcus Smart who once again struggled from the field in his own right. The length of Milwaukee was affecting so many plays, that it seemed to extend to plays where C’s shooters had room.
Brogdon, off his own block at the rim on Thomas, drove through the Celts front-court to push Milwaukee to their greatest lead at 47-33. Then Thomas sprinted into the game; ran around a screen into an open three-pointer, drove and spun to pass behind his back to Crowder for an open dunk. The deficit was 10 again.
Thomas kept churning, as did Smart who ran into Middleton at full speed and was ultimately alleviated of the foul called on him for chasing the loose ball but not the technical for his response. Thomas only stopped charging when he was met by Antetokounmpo for a jump ball.
Greek Freak vs. Isaiah Thomas jump ball went about how you'd expect... pic.twitter.com/VKnbjqHzUg— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) March 30, 2017
He pushed through the front court once again from a high pass by Al Horford to get his 15th point in 14 minutes. His shooting, driving and a key pass after an offensive rebound by Smart to find Bradley on the way to the rim brought Boston within four. Antetokounmpo stopped the bleeding with a put-back slam and jumper over the head of Smart. Thomas’ performance had the game at 55-49 after trailing by 14. A blowout loss-level effort still had a chance to become a win.
Horford got out of his early funk, sizing up Antetokounmpo with his full 7’0” wingspan extended against him. He put it on the floor, spun and extended his arm to get a hard-earned two points on a floater. Next possession, Bradley and Jae Crowder swarmed Middleton on the low block leaving Brogdon open for a cut for an easy bucket. 1:41 into the third, Stevens already called timeout.
Good passing wasn’t leading to good shooting, a great pass late in the shot clock from Bradley to Crowder in the corner yielded a wide-open miss. As did Bradley’s kick-out to him on a rebound later. But Thomas’ toss to Bradley in the paint drew in the defense, leaving Horford wide open for a three in the corner on the consecutive dish to the perimeter.
Crowder finally got a bucket setting himself up with a pump-fake drive to the rim through the foul. Celtics were within two, slowly finding their offense as a team.
Unsurprisingly, Milwaukee’s counter was length. The young, or old, prodigy Thon Maker stepped onto the court for two quick buckets extending his arms around the rim. The tugging and pulling continued; Bradley nailed a three from the far wing, Smart caught a give-and-go make from Amir Johnson, and to cap off another great run Smart pushed the ball ahead to Thomas after his rebound. He immediately buried a stand-up three from a few steps back. Celtics were within two but couldn’t fully assume the lead without stops.
The crowd started heating up as the game swung back-and-forth hard. The intense sequence culminated with Thomas getting blocked at the rim by Giannis before three Celts attempts at tipping the ball in the rim turned into two free throws for Bradley. Next possession Smart got his own offensive rebound twice, before Crowder finished to give the Celts the lead they coveted. Boston’s rebounding leaders; Smart, Bradley, Thomas. As expected.
Smart’s early struggles evaporated into the most anti-box score impact imaginable, which is often within the realm of imagination with him. Over the last minute and a half, he banged bodies in the post, grabbed another offensive rebound put-back and helped get the team rebound that ended up in Crowder’s hands for a second chance drive that went wide. Through three quarters Boston had 12 offensive rebounds, but still trailed 80-77.
The final 12 opened with a smooth behind the back dish on the drive from Smart to Horford for three. Milwaukee again commanded smoothly. Monroe grabbed his own missed floater through Horford and Smart. He did the same thing following a Jason Terry floater and Boston, already trailing by 14 and 10 on the night, was down eight.
The call to counter Monroe again went to Mr. Zeller.
He quickly scored, missed two decent looks around the rim with drives going around him, then turned it up to score through the foul on a driving dish from Bradley on the run. With 6:10 left the teams were once again a possession apart.
Antetokounmpo continued to be the needle that poked the C’s. A ruthless cut across the baseline got him an easy two as Brogdon drove. Next possession, Smart happened. Two offensive rebounds, the last of which he got knocked out-of-bounds by Giannis. He got stepped over, and in the ensuing scramble Smart got called for a flagrant foul for making contact with Antetokounmpo.
Thomas, of course, had an answer to that sequence as well. Two dribbles to the right, a few steps behind the three-point line on the right wing, he buried a three with Brogdon in his face to set the single-season Celts record for threes in a season.
Milwaukee lost control of the ball, Smart brought it back in the opposite direction after they saved the rolling ball from going out of bounds and he charged to the rim rotating his arms and hit one of his typical off-balance layups. Monroe rotated a second too late and the game was tied.
The Bucks, as they did all night, did not let Boston’s hard charge lead to anything. A Brogdon floater on a front-facing drive later they were up four again. He found Monroe as Horford fell on defense after Crowder got the Celtics within one possession from the line.
Horford made up for it quick, pushing Antetokounmpo to his left after Thomas hit an easy layup. Giannis was way off as the shot clock sounded and he threw the ball off the glass.
Boston went the two point route again via Thomas, his 31st and 32 of the night. The next possession was 24 seconds of great switches and fierce on-ball defense. Brogdon had a second to toss up an elbow jumper with Bradley playing perfect defense, and it went through the rim with nothing but net.
Malcom Brogdon is out of his damn MIND in Boston, then seals victory with absolute NAILS jumper with Avery Bradley ALL over him pic.twitter.com/H3bXFwys6g— Gregg Popowob (@World_Wide_Wob) March 30, 2017
Boston had one last shot, 3 second to go, trailing by three.
Smart took the ball, trying to finish what he started and ended the game as way off from three as Brogdon was on point the previous possession. The Bucks once again solidified their lead as Boston came rushing and this time, the win was sealed 103-100.