MILWAUKEE — After coming back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit in Game 5 with deadeye 3-point shooting and one of the greatest clutch defensive plays of all time, another incredible comeback felt like a real possibility as the Bucks started to shrink the Celtics’ 12-point lead to start the fourth quarter of Game 6. Ultimately, though, they didn’t have enough as Jayson Tatum went shot-for-shot with them in the final quarter and led the Celtics to a 108-95 win to force a Game 7 on Sunday in Boston.
With 8:56 remaining in Game 6, a closeout game for the Bucks and an elimination game for the Celtics, Tatum missed a free throw and the ball tipped around before it landed in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s massive hands. He brought the ball up the right side and surveyed the floor. His primary defender Marcus Smart waited for him at the 3-point line and kept retreating until Smart, Jrue Holiday and Jaylen Brown jostled for position at the free-throw line as the Bucks point guard tried to set a screen to open up Antetokounmpo.
Their jostling for position didn’t much matter, though, because Antetokounmpo didn’t care to come inside the 3-point line that possession. With Holiday, Smart and Jaylen Brown all waiting for him at the free-throw line, Antetokounmpo calmly stepped into a 3 and drilled it. The high-arcing, long-range shot gave Antetokounmpo 40 points and brought the Bucks within four and the Fiserv Forum crowd now could feel it.
They had seen the Bucks come back from down 14 in Boston just two nights earlier and they could sense the same thing was about to happen in Milwaukee on Friday night.
Following the Antetokounmpo triple, the Bucks successfully forced the Celtics deep into the shot clock, but Tatum eventually found the matchup he wanted. Tatum isolated Bobby Portis on the right wing, but Holiday doubled late and forced an errant pass. It bounced around the floor. Pat Connaughton dove to secure it, but he went out of bounds as he tried to make the save. There were just two seconds on the shot clock and the Bucks felt destined to make a stop, but then Tatum hit a contested jumper over their best defender.
Showing the steely resolve that won them Game 5 in Boston, aConnaughton answered on the very next possession with a ridiculous reverse lay-in on the baseline that he seemed to throw through the rim as he was floating away from the basket. The Celtics’ lead was down to four again, but Tatum could not be stopped.
Again, the Bucks forced the Celtics deep into the shot clock, but Tatum worked his way around a series of screens on the perimeter to get himself the ideal matchup. With George Hill as his primary defender, Tatum made a few moves and then pulled up for a left-wing triple.
The Bucks would not cut it back down to four again but they did cut the Celtics’ lead to five with six minutes remaining on another Connaughton lay-in. But it just didn’t matter.
Tatum put up 46 points on 17-of-32 shooting from the field and added nine rebounds and four assists. He hit all the big baskets the Celtics needed to hold off the Bucks in the fourth quarter and answered Antetokounmpo, who seemed destined to once again put up massive numbers — 44 points, 20 rebounds, six assists — and close out a series in six, just like he did when he put up 50 points against the Suns in Game 6 of last year’s NBA Finals.
“He was unbelievable,” Antetokounmpo said. “He was knocking down shots, tough shots, getting to his spots. You gotta give him credit. He played unbelievable. He led his team to a win. As I said, made a lot of tough shots. I think, as a team, we were doing a good job being in front of him, making him shoot contested 3s, contested 2s, but he made it and you gotta respect that. He played unbelievable.”
Antetokounmpo also delivered an all-time performance, putting up the first 40 point/20 rebound playoff game since Shaquille O’Neal in the 2001 NBA Finals, but it wasn’t enough. And now the Bucks and Celtics will play a Game 7 in Boston on Sunday (2:30 p.m. CT).
“Good old Game 7. Beautiful,” Antetokounmpo said. “You just gotta go enjoy the game, you don’t know if you’re ever gonna be a part of a Game 7… so never take it for granted. Enjoy the game. Go out there and try to play good basketball. Hopefully, we can put ourselves in a position to win. If we do, great. If we don’t, our effort is gonna always be there.”
If the Bucks are going to win Game 7, it starts with slowing down Tatum. Milwaukee has done a relatively good job on him throughout the series, but he is talented, so that means there can be games where he gets rolling offensively even with solid defense. Game 6 was one of those nights.
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“Just make him a little more uncomfortable,” Connaughton (14 points) said. “I felt like we did contest a decent amount of shots, but I felt like we let a few of them go where he was getting uncontested ones. And when you get a few uncontested ones with a player like him, sometimes the contested ones go in too, right, when he gets rolling.”
“I think it’s being physical with him before the catch. It’s trying to fight through the screens. They’re a great screening team, so they try to find ways to get him open. I thought when we started to switch, he had to take some tough ones, some contested ones. And I think he missed a few of (them).”
There is a fine line though. With Tatum on the bench to start the fourth quarter, the Bucks chopped away at the Celtics’ lead with switching, but as shown in the clips above, switching all on-ball action gives Tatum a chance to find mismatches as well. Look at this possession where Tatum finds George Hill covering him.
“I think personally, like I don’t think you can do it the whole game,” Antetokounmpo said of potentially switching more in Game 7. “You got to pick your spots when you’re going to do it. I think they have very smart players and they can read it. If you do it throughout the whole game, obviously, sometimes it’s effective, but if you keep doing it, they’re going to adjust right? So you just got to mix it in.”
That same delicate balance will apply to the Bucks’ rotations as well.
Without Khris Middleton, they are a man short. No matter how the they try to finagle their rotations, that is the truth. There will always be a weak link, either offensively or defensively, on the floor. That could a big man who can’t move his feet quick enough on a switch or a guard not big enough to perform well in a switch against Tatum or a shooter who can’t find another way to impact the game and the list goes on.
Middleton is a complete player with size, skill on both sides of the ball and tremendous intelligence. As Spurs coach Gregg Popovich described him earlier in the season, Middleton is basketball glue; he finds his way into every crack inside a team on offense and defense and holds everything together. Without that glue, the Bucks’ top-heavy roster has shown its cracks and that has led to coach Mike Budenholzer trying to figure out how to keep his team together.
To start the series, Jevon Carter saw regular minutes and made an impact picking up the Celtics full-court on defense. When Hill returned to the lineup after missing the first seven games of the postseason, he took Carter’s spot. And while Hill made a positive impact in the Bucks’ Game 3 win, he has become a regular target for the Celtics on switches.
“I think getting (Hill) healthy is a big part of it, playing George,” Budenholzer said when asked why Carter has not been seen as a useful part of his rotations in the last four games. “Jevon’s been good. He’s helped us. So we gotta look at everything, but I think the defense and everything, I don’t know what they ended up at — 108 — I think George really helps us defensively. And Jevon can too. They’re different in how they help us defensively.”
In Game 6, the Bucks were minus-29 in the minutes Grayson Allen was on the floor and the starting shooting guard went 0-for-4 from 3. He hit three big 3s and scored 11 points in the Bucks’ Game 1 win, tallied four assists despite going scoreless in the Game 3 win and put up eight points and five assists in the Game 5 win. He is one of the only players that the Celtics cover with any urgency defensively, but, like Hill, the Celtics have also targeted him on switches.
“The plus-minus is a tough stat and sometimes it’s good, but Grayson is doing his best,” Budenholzer said following Game 5. “He had some good looks. Just some nights they go, some nights they don’t. Sometimes you get good looks … I don’t know when they got their transition points. It can flip. You make one or two of those, he feels a lot better. Less transition defense, more halfcourt defense, but as a group, we gotta be better.”
Without Middleton, the margin for error is nonexistent. Budenholzer has to push the right buttons with his remaining personnel, but even with the perfect rotation, the Bucks still need more offense. Repeatedly, during their postgame media availability following Game 6, the Bucks brought up one thing that can help them score more points.
“We have to find a way to get up more 3s and make more 3s,” Holiday said after putting up 24 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in Game 6. “They’re a switching team. They switch everything and they try to make you play one-on-one. That makes it a little tougher for 3s. The paint’s crowded, and it’s hard to see those kickout 3s. I’m not saying that they’re not there, but it just makes it tougher. So I think just moving the ball a little bit more, moving bodies, getting defensive stops, and then pushing in transition, that’s usually how we get a bulk of our threes.”
In six games against the Celtics, the Bucks have made just 31 percent from 3 and attempted only 28.3 attempts per game after putting up 38.4 attempts per game and making 36.6 percent during the regular season. Getting any of their shooters loose for a big night from the 3-point line in Game 7 would be massive.
In the end though, Game 7s are the moments that the best come to cherish, the moments that can build a legendary career.
“You’ve got to go and find a way to get that fourth win and win the series,” Budenholzer said. “Everybody in sport looks for that game. That college feel. That NCAA feel. If you lose your season’s done, if you win you keep going.”
Antetokounmpo has already made this trip. He just hopes it goes better this time around.
“Game 7, baby. Hopefully, we can play good basketball,” he said. “I remember 2018, yes, 2018, we went to Boston in a Game 7. Didn’t have the best game possible, but you learn from it. You learn what the atmosphere is like when the ball gets heavy.”
“So no matter what happens, we’re gonna leave that game and we’re going to be better. If we’re going to be the team advancing to the next round, great. I hope so. We’re gonna play hard, but if we’re not, at the end of the day, we’re gonna learn from this one. We’re gonna be better. So for me just go out and play free. Be fearless, play free, we don’t owe nobody nothing.”
(Photo of Brook Lopez: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)