“Nothing can stop me,” sings Bas in his new song, “Run It Up,” which has yet to be released but serves as the intro tune for ESPN’s NBA Playoffs broadcasts this year. It’s fitting, of course: whatever team remains standing at the end will be able to say that nothing could stop them on their way to championship glory. And ahead of Sunday’s Game 1 tilt between the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks, all signs pointed to this series being a damn good preview as to who could represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals.
But on Sunday only of those two teams — the latter, the defending champs — looked to be one that no one can stop. Led by Giannis Antetokounmpo — 24 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists — and Jrue Holiday — 25 points and 10 rebounds — in particular, the Bucks dominated Game 1, bullying their way to a 101-89 win and the early 1-0 series advantage.
To begin the first quarter, the Celtics took advantage of what the Bucks are willing to give them: relatively uncontested triples, specifically those attempted by Boston’s “lesser” deep threats. Both Al Horford and Marcus Smart connected from three for the team’s first two buckets, a trend that will need to continue throughout the series as Milwaukee looks to take away Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as much as possible.
But in response, and in an effort to keep things close, the Bucks will additionally need what they got from Jrue Holiday in the opening period. With the confirmation that Khris Middleton will remain sidelined for the entire series with a torn MCL coming late last week, Milwaukee will need whatever they can get from contributors not named Giannis Antetokounmpo. To that end, Holiday was properly aggressive on the offensive end, knocking down two early triples and attacking the basket with aplomb during the game’s early moments. Through one, he led the Bucks in scoring with six points.
Boston’s offense went quiet in the quarter’s final two minutes following an electric putback detonation from Brown that gave them a 24-17 lead. That was just one of the Celtics’ four offensive rebounds in the first, as well as just two of their eight first-quarter points in the paint. And despite a typically-stout early effort on the defensive end from Boston for much of the first quarter, it was a late 10-nothing Bucks run that gave the visitor’s the 27-24 advantage after one.
For the first few minutes of the second, it looked as though this game might turn into a tale as old as, well, the first half of the regular season — lackadaisical decision-making led to a sizable deficit, and consistently inconsistent offensive production from the team’s two stars was too much for the supporting cast to make up for. With just over five minutes to go in the first half, Tatum and Brown had combined for just six points on two-of-11 shooting, while for the game, Boston had turned it over nine times, leading to 14 Milwaukee points. Ime Udoka called a timeout with 5:31 remaining and the Celtics trailing by eight, and any decent lipreader could make out a pointed message: “Guys. What the f***?”
Brown and Tatum would both hit a few threes to get back on track and to get Boston within four, but the Bucks wasted no time in delivering an answer. His (cursed) name? Grayson Allen. He scored all nine of his first-half points from three in the second, and the Bucks took a 56-46 lead into the break. Boston shot just 34 percent from the field; Tatum (30 percent shooting) and Brown (25 percent) were relative non-factors, playing sluggish ball through the first half, a nightmare start for the exact players the Bucks want to render ineffective. Milwaukee, meanwhile, finished the half on an 11-3 run. Antetokounmpo led the way, as he does, with a ho-hum triple-double in the works: 14 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists.
Near the end of the second, Marcus Smart jogged to the locker room with what looked to be a shoulder injury. But at halftime, Shams Charania reported that he would return despite a right shoulder stinger and right quad contusion.
Smart made his presence felt early in the third quarter, assisting on an early Tatum triple and finishing a reverse layup of his own to keep Boston’s deficit in the single digits. As the period continued, though, Milwaukee’s physicality gave them the advantage. Giannis Antetokounmpo crashed the boards and drew fouls with a purpose, and while he wasn’t as prolific a bucket-getter in the third as he was in the first half, he did everything else. As much as Al Horford deterred what would typically be easy buckets for Giannis in the paint, Giannis tormented Boston with his vision and length. Just about every time Boston looked to be knocking on the door of getting back into this game, Giannis snatched a rebound, forced a turnover, or dished it to an open teammate. And on one particular drive, he was just as superhuman as ever.
Here’s where the game ultimately could have flipped: Giannis picked up consecutive fouls, and exited the game with 3:37 remaining in the third after picking up his fourth on an ill-advised steal attempt with Jayson Tatum dribbling aimlessly in double coverage roughly 35 feet from the cup. Bucks’ head coach Mike Budenholzer threw up his arms — his own version of Udoka’s “Guys. What the f***?” — and subbed him out.
Earlier in the game, Milwaukee was outscored by seven points with Giannis sitting. But with Giannis riding the pine in the third, the Bucks didn’t fold. They managed to outscore the Celtics 6-5 during the quarter’s final three and a half minutes, not a groundbreaking margin, but enough to keep their lead at or around eight-to-10 points. At the end of the third, the Celtics trailed 78-70, playing admissable defense but finding nothing on offense.
Jayson Tatum’s afternoon wasn’t what we’re used to seeing from him, but it was Jaylen Brown’s horrendous outing that might have been the difference-maker. Entering the fourth, he was just two-for-11 from the field, but even more frustratingly, he had racked up five turnovers, many of which came in driving situations where he seemed to lose his way on the attack. Brown failed to find the open man when he had two sets of eyes pointed his way. And his passes never put his teammates in a position to create or get a good shot off.
Brown finally found the range in the fourth, knocking down two threes in a matter of minutes to trim Boston’s deficit to 13, but the fact that it was so large to begin with was the principal issue. For 40 minutes or so, Brown, frankly, looked detached, almost like he was playing a game in mid-November. Giannis, meanwhile, didn’t even need to go nuclear in order to have the best outing of any player on the floor. He finished with a triple-double and was an especially savvy passer all day; he set up his teammates with open looks off penetration, and those teammates gave him reason to trust them, just as they have all season. Giannis also managed to, well, do this.
Antetokounmpo wasn’t even their leading scorer — that was Holiday, who filled Khris Middleton’s shoes quite nicely on both ends — but the two-time MVP led the way from an overall perspective, scoring or assisting on 55 Milwaukee points while he was on the floor. With under two minutes remaining, the Celtics emptied their bench, thus conceding the first game of this second-round series (and homecourt advantage, for what it’s worth) to the defending NBA champions. The Bucks followed suit in short order, but not before letting their starters dribble around a little while longer, perhaps unintentionally adding one last insult to the 48-minute injury.
It’s only one game, but Milwaukee looked like a team with an interest in defending their title while Boston looked like a team still far away from being ready to win one. That’s the sort of overreaction a loss like this can cause. Of course, once Game 2 rolls around on Tuesday night, the Celtics will have had a chance to watch the film and readjust their game plan, especially on offense.
Then again, so will the Bucks, a team that remains terrifying, full-strength or not. This has the potential to be a long series. But as evidenced on Sunday, Milwaukee is more than capable of making it a quick one, too.