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Disruptive Thon Maker, Bucks’ length put Celtics “on their heels”

The Bucks had 13 blocks and forced 18 turnovers with their new defensive system vs. the Celtics.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton received little-to-no assistance scoring in Games One and Two. They needed another killer mentality at work, one that Antetokounmpo told Thon Maker in a conversation two weeks ago that had to emerge again.

Joe Prunty’s team lacked energy. Those two were going to penetrate and shoot respectively, but the matchups in Boston were decided by the depth of production only one team received.

But as Brad Stevens eyeballed the Bucks with the series turning back to Milwaukee, he became worried; not because of the low averages of his opponent’s role players, but for what they are capable of. Eric Bledsoe, Jabari Parker, Matthew Dellavedova and Maker’s names ring with familiarity for a reason.

Sitting on Prunty’s bench for all but one minute in the first two games, the 7’1” Maker was once a prospect so mesmerizing in 2016 that Milwaukee jumped on him with the 10th overall pick. The first high-schooler drafted that high in a decade prior, the aura around his age, absurd length and record standing jump for a player of his height fascinated observers as the possible finishing touch to Jason Kidd’s vision of a team so long they’d need wider lockers.

The pieces were assembled but results did not. Maker has averaged under a block per game through 131 regular season contests while posing little threat on the offensive end.

The Bucks have fallen short of becoming the disruptive, turnover-inducing menace that Kidd and others envisioned. Maker’s been cast to the side, potential untapped. This series appeared to be a continuation of that lost hope, until Friday night’s Game 3 blowout win.

Maker, more than any player on the Bucks, marks what could have been. So as he unloaded on the Celtics with five blocks, three in the final four minutes of the first quarter, before a trio of three-pointers through the rest of his performance, he uplifted the Bucks to fulfillment.

They became the biggest disrupters in basketball for 48 minutes, long from end to end and always in their opponent’s head whenever they think of shooting.

“I though that (Maker) was a big part of the game,” Stevens said. “Dellavedova got into the ball. For whatever reason we didn’t get it to where we needed it to go. We didn’t pass it the way we’ve passed it at all ... especially when you look at number of side-to-sides and number of reversals.”

When Stevens saw the passing hit the mark, players were holding the ball and staring. Al Horford observed that the game became emotional. In one quarter Boston looked completely ripped out of their element, unable to adjust to the personnel changes Prunty enacted. He played Tony Snell and Jason Terry less, and leaned more on the impactful size of Maker and Parker.

Through 13 minutes Boston shot 10.5 percent from the field, and Horford observed, “we didn’t have an answer.”

Early post touches sent Horford’s way led to an abundance of contact that frustrated him through an 0-for-4 start that Greg Monroe matched. Numerous possessions went against the Celtics, then right in favor of Milwaukee. The Bucks routinely knocked balls out of Boston’s hands.

It began the moment Terry Rozier’s 70 minutes of turnover-free basketball rolled off his feet and out-of-bounds, then compounded into the theme of the night when Jaylen Brown knocked over Malcolm Brogdon on the drive, freeing space only to get his shot swatted off the backboard from behind by Maker.

Horford tried to salvage the play, chasing Antetokounmpo to the other end and slapping his layup off the back of the rim. This time it was goaltending.

“I told him you have to bring that killer mentality back,” Antetokounmpo said of an earlier conversation with Maker. Prunty added that the combination of rim protection, energy and even shot-making are something Maker has to bring to the table nightly.

When Maker wasn’t terrorizing Boston, Parker stepped into the fold with two blocks of his own, a spot-up three and several put-back jams in traffic, one off of a horrific five-foot shooter by Maker. It pretty much became a pass off the rim.

Bledsoe worked a 17-point game, shutting Rozier off for nine on 2-of-7 shooting. Parker added 17 more and the Bucks compiled 13 blocks, slashing 7.7 percent off of Boston’s field goal percentage with that alone.

The threat of the blocks, coming on the perimeter and around the rim seeped tentativeness into the Celtics’ resolve. They mustered a small comeback on a series of Jayson Tatum makes and a Rozier lob to Horford, which shrunk the lead to 14, but Maker returned for the rest of the third to shut them off.

“They had already set the tone for the game,” Stevens said. “We were on our heels the whole time, and they did a great job of creating that. When Dellavedova and Maker came in, their energy was contagious and really pushed us out. I thought we were settling.”

Blocks piled up, he presumed, because Boston’s players forced the issue on the interior trying to push a comeback.

Milwaukee pulled off one of its best offensive nights in years, one Maker, Parker and the rest of their bench may not be able to replicate. But the seed of doubt they planted in Boston’s head, with Maker’s blocks and long, active defense could be a trend that persists for the rest of the series.

For now, Prunty’s new rotations have prevailed and the Bucks became that team the length number on paper say they are.

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