BOSTON — Four minutes into Game 2 of the Eastern Conference first-round series, Celtics coach Brad Stevens looked down Boston’s bench and summoned … Guerschon Yabusele. Yabusele, a DNP-CD in Sunday’s Game 1 win. Yabusele, who played 235 minutes in the regular season — and no more than a handful of them meaningful. Yabusele, best known for his dabs after threes than his ability to consistently make them.
Why not? Everything else works. Kyrie Irving goes down? There’s Terry Rozier, averaging nearly 16 points per game replacing him. Marcus Smart goes out? Hey, there’s Shane Larkin ready to check in. A minute into his first career playoff game, in came Yabusele, hurling his body out of bounds to save a loose ball, flipping it back to Rozier for an open three.
Boston pummeled Milwaukee 120-106 on Tuesday, seizing a 2-0 series lead. In a critical game, the Bucks were largely lifeless. An 11-point, first-quarter lead swelled to 20 in the third quarter, with Boston outworking, outsmarting and out-executing a Bucks team that for 43 minutes had the best player on the floor. Giannis Antetokounmpo was brilliant, racking up 30 points on tidy 13-of-17 shooting from the floor. Antetokounmpo is close to an impossible guard; back off him, dare him to shoot, and he’ll build a head of steam on the way to the rim. Get in his chest, and he’ll blow right by you.
“Second game in a row I felt like we did a great job on Giannis,” Stevens said. “He’s impossible to guard.”
He is. For Milwaukee, though, he’s one of the only few. Khris Middleton (25 points) made shots, and Malcolm Brogdon chipped in 10 points before inexplicably disappearing from the rotation in the fourth quarter. But Tony Snell (two points) was a non-factor, Jabari Parker went scoreless, and Eric Bledsoe was outplayed by Rozier for the second game in a row. In the Bucks’ locker room, Bledsoe was asked about the Rozier matchup.
“Who?” Bledsoe said.
Rozier — your counterpart, the guy with 46 points, 11 assists and no turnovers in two games this series.
“I don’t even know who the [expletive] that is,” Bledsoe said.
OK. Well, Bledsoe could have plenty of time to watch Rozier, because if things don’t change when this series shifts back to Milwaukee, this series is over. “There’s no chippiness, man,” Bucks veteran Jason Terry said. The Bucks were giddy to get Boston in the first round. The Celtics were battered and seemingly vulnerable, but instead of squashing a banged-up bunch, the Bucks have been punched back by them. Instead of fighting for its coach, Milwaukee is playing like a team eager to get a jump-start on finding a new one.
“I don’t think [my words] are falling on deaf ears,” Bucks coach Joe Prunty said. “What we’ve talked about is, you got to be ready to play. Some guys showed some things, some guys did not, but in a series, in the postseason, you have to be ready to play right when you step on the floor.”
Boston’s obit has been written, more than once, but this team just refuses to die. Need offense? Try Jaylen Brown, the second-year swingman whose confidence seemingly grows by the game. Nearly two years ago, Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck stood on the TD Garden floor to announce the team was picking Brown, and the boos echoed through the arena. On Tuesday, a capacity crowd of 18,624 rose to salute Brown, whose 30 points led the way.
“Jaylen loves the moment,” Stevens said. “I think he really appreciated the opportunity to compete on this stage, and at this level. We have seen him against the better teams in the league all year be able to really raise his level in some of his biggest games.”
Need defense? Enter Al Horford, the connective tissue of Boston’s top-ranked D. As bodies have shuffled in and out of the Celtics’ lineup, Horford has been a constant, a 72-game workhorse who ranks among the NBA’s best defenders. The Bucks racked up strong numbers on Tuesday — 59.7 percent from the floor, 41.2 percent from three — but at the postgame presser, Stevens made sure Horford’s defensive efforts didn’t go unnoticed.
“Al was very locked in to what’s going on in the game,” Stevens said. “I mean, he’s thinking about it at a high level. We switched his rotations in the second half … [and] he is flexible as far as whatever you want to do. But he is really locked in to all the different matchups that he may have to guard.”
Gordon Hayward’s injury put a nail in Boston’s contender coffin in October, and Irving’s exit last month seemed to seal it. But here comes Boston, a band of backups determined to overachieve. Here come the Celtics, a team with no business making a deep playoff run playing like a team ready to make one.
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