It doesn’t quite have the same panache or history as “Bucks in 6,” but after a Game 5 loss put their backs against the wall, we’re betting Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks think “Bucks in 7” sounds pretty good, too.
Antetokounmpo did what superstars do on Thursday night, scoring 12 of his game-high 31 points in the fourth quarter to carry the Bucks to a 97-86 win in Game 6 at BMO Harris Bradley Center in Wisconsin. Needing a win to stay alive, the Bucks held serve on their home court, making home teams a perfect 6-0 in this series — a fact that Antetokounmpo plans to change come Saturday night, when the Bucks will return to TD Garden for a winner-take-all Game 7 to determine which team will advance to take on the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and which team will start its summer vacation earlier than they’d hoped.
Antetokounmpo has been the Bucks’ primary source of offense and playmaking all year, a top-five MVP candidate who averaged a career high 26.9 points per game during the regular season. After a comparatively disappointing outing in Game 5 that saw him attempt only 10 field goals, at times looking uncomfortable with the physical defense of center Al Horford and surprise starter/rookie forward Semi Ojeleye, Antetokounmpo made good on his promise to be more assertive on Thursday. The do-everything gamebreaker shot 13-for-23 from the field while pulling down 14 rebounds, dishing four assists and snagging two steals in 41-plus minutes of turnover-free ball.
Antetokounmpo torched the Celtics just about any which way he wanted in Game 6. He fought his way to the free-throw line in a low-possession slog of a game, going 5-for-8 from the stripe. He out-quicked Horford and perma-foil Aron Baynes, out-muscled Ojeleye, shot over Marcus Morris, and got to his preferred spots on the floor rather than being deterred by Boston’s waves of physicality. He faced up and drove, and faced up and stepped back. He jumped passing lanes to get out in transition, ran the floor on the break and, of course, Euro-stepped his way to glory:
With Giannis, Khris Middleton (16 points on 7-for-8 shooting, five rebounds) and Malcolm Brogdon (16 points on 5-for-7 shooting, six rebounds) carrying the offensive load, it was up to the defense — a sticking point all season, as the Bucks finished 17th in defensive efficiency despite featuring a collection of length and athleticism that an awful lot of NBA teams would envy — to keep the Celtics from matching Milwaukee bucket-for-bucket. After going down nine early thanks to a hot shooting start from Boston point guard Terry Rozier, the Bucks’ D largely held up its end of the bargain, limiting the visitors to just 86 points on 37 percent shooting as a team and a 10-for-36 mark from the 3-point line.
For long stretches, the Celtics offense bogged down into ineffective, static play, devoid of the kind of side-to-side ball movement and off-ball activity that has allowed Boston to generate just enough offense in this series despite the absence of injured All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving. The problem was especially acute whenever Horford (10 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, two blocks) was off the court.
Without his ability to facilitate sets from the elbows and out of the post, the Celtics’ attack lacked dynamism, emboldening Milwaukee’s phalanx of long-armed defenders to press up a little tighter on their marks and leak out off misfires. The Celtics totaled just nine turnovers, but Milwaukee turned them into 14 points, and major 25-4 edge in fast break points piled up thanks largely to the Bucks being able to rebound Boston’s errant jumpers (nine defensive rebounds and 11 total for a particularly bouncy Jabari Parker) and turn them, alchemy-like, into instant offense.
“I thought any time we got stagnant, we weren’t very good,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after the game. “Whenever we held the ball, whenever one person had the ball for more than a second or two, it was bad news for us […] When we don’t play with super effort defensively, and super connectivity, and we don’t move the ball, we’re going to go on some major lulls. And our margin is what it is. Those lulls will beat us.”
One particularly nettlesome lull that allowed the Bucks to rip off a 21-4 run spanning the end of the second quarter and the start of the third to take a 55-41 lead less than three minutes into the second half. After a timeout during which Stevens implored his team to pass the ball and get moving again, though, the Celtics came roaring back. Young wings Jayson Tatum (a team-high 22 points, three rebounds, three assists, two steals) and Jaylen Brown (14 points on 15 shots, five rebounds) starting to attack the rim off the bounce and take advantage of at-times inattentive Bucks off-ball defense by cutting their way into the paint; one such slice led to a Tatum layup to cap a 20-6 Boston run that tied the game at 61-all with 4:21 to go in the third quarter.
Shortly thereafter, though, Horford hit the bench for a breather, and suddenly the Celtics couldn’t generate good looks, while the Bucks couldn’t stop. Milwaukee started switching defensive assignments on the perimeter, and no Celtics ball-handler could consistently exploit perceived mismatches against all that length and quickness.
On the other end, the Bucks worked the angles. They got the 6-foot-8 Middleton matched up on the 6-foot-2 Rozier and letting him play Pop-A-Shot. They put Giannis to work against Ojeleye, and this time, the Greek was ready to use his length and leverage to get what he wanted over the top of the stout SMU product. The result: a 74-65 Bucks lead entering the fourth quarter, a nine-point edge they wouldn’t relinquish.
Boston kept the heat on early in the fourth, with Marcus Morris shooting his way into a couple of big makes to get the C’s to within two points at 80-78 midway through the frame. But Milwaukee wound up on the sunny side of a six-point swing with 5 1/2 minutes to go.
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) April 27, 2018
Brown watched a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer from the right corner rattle in and out, only for Antetokounmpo to rebound it and outlet the ball to Eric Bledsoe, who raced downcourt and fired a feed to Brogdon, whose left corner 3 splashed through to give the Bucks an 84-78 lead. The Celtics wouldn’t get closer than five the rest of the way, with Giannis and Brogdon scoring the Bucks’ final 16 points to push Milwaukee over the finish line and into a win-or-go-home series finale where the Bucks have the chance to advance past the postseason’s opening round for the first time in 17 years.
“In my opinion, the series hasn’t started yet,” Antetokounmpo told TNT’s Ros Gold-Onwude during an on-court interview.
The series starts at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday night. If the version of Giannis who showed up on Thursday makes the trip to Boston, it ought to be one hell of a show.
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