BOSTON – Fourth quarter, game still in doubt and Giannis Antetokounmpo decided, hey, let’s do something nuts. Bottled up on the perimeter by Grant Williams, Antetokounmpo stepped toward the rim, flipped the ball off the backboard, caught it and threw down a dunk between two Celtics defenders.
It swelled Milwaukee’s lead to 16 with six minutes to play. And ended whatever fleeting hope Boston had of mounting a comeback in Sunday’s 101-89 defeat.
“Threw it to the backboard,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’m lucky God blessed me with the ability to jump.”
Deadpanned Jrue Holiday, “I could probably do [that] on an eight-foot hoop.”
Added Mike Budenholzer, “That’s just pure talent, just pure instinct. He’s a great player, he does things that are unique and special and timely. That’s one of those plays where you’re just happy he’s on our side.”
Milwaukee took Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Sunday. And Antetokounmpo reminded everyone why he should still be considered the best player on the planet. It wasn’t vintage Giannis. He shot 9-for-25. He missed both of his three’s. He committed a goofy foul—his fourth—late in the third quarter that sent him to the bench. But he scored 24 points. He pulled down 13 rebounds. He handed out 12 assists. He contributed to a stifling Bucks defense.
And, most importantly, his team won.
The MVP will be revealed later this month. Giannis won’t win it. He likely won’t finish higher than third. But his play on Sunday is a reminder that when he is sharp, he is close to unstoppable. Those Boston defenders that effectively limited Kevin Durant? Antetokounmpo barreled right through them. When Boston mixed up its defenses, Giannis patiently picked it apart.
“We went too quick [with double teams] sometimes,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “He’s going to find those passes, so we have to be careful not to come too quickly with the double.”
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Boston manhandled Brooklyn last round. But this is a different series. The Bucks love physical play. “Maybe I’m weird, but I thrive through physicality,” Antetokounmpo said. And Milwaukee can dish it out. The Bucks’ front line of Giannis, Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis dominated the Celtics frontcourt, controlling the glass (54-48 edge in rebounds) and limiting Boston to 20 points in the paint. They forced turnovers (18) and scored a lot off of them (27 points) while limiting the Celtics’ production in the paint (20 points)
“They hit us in the mouth early,” Jaylen Brown said.
Said Al Horford, “They were on a different level.”
Boston has an elite defense. In Game 1, Milwaukee’s was better. Jayson Tatum scored 21 points. Brown had 12. As a team, the Celtics shot 33.3% from the field. They made just 10 shots from inside the three-point line. Lopez’s return from a back injury in mid-March has morphed a good Bucks defense into a great one. In Game 1, Lopez pulled down 10 rebounds and blocked three shots in 28 minutes. “He’s so active,” said Antetokounmpo. “He’s been amazing.”
Amazing? That’s Antetokounmpo. Any other year Antetokounmpo would have been a shoo-in for MVP. He averaged 30 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists during the regular season. He remained one of the NBA’s top defensive players. In the first round against Chicago, Giannis averaged 28.6 points, 13.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists, numbers that would have been better if not for only playing 29 minutes in a Game 3 laugher.
The Bucks have drawn first blood in this series. The absence of Khris Middleton, who is expected to miss this series with a knee injury, is significant, but Milwaukee believes it can win with sturdy defense. Since a sluggish first two games against Chicago they have looked like the defending champs.
“I think we have played way better defensively [since then],” said Antetokounmpo. “We have realized in order for us to to win games, we have to guard. One of our best scorers is not out there. We know we have to guard. If we don’t guard, we don’t have a chance.”
The Celtics need to regroup. “We got to do a better job of doing what we want to do and not letting them dictate that throughout the course of the game,” Tatum said. They need to match Milwaukee’s physicality. They need get off the three-point line (50 attempts in Game 1) and force the issue in the paint.
Home court advantage is gone. The momentum gained from a four-game sweep of Brooklyn has come to a screeching halt. “We’ve been resilient all year,” Brown said. “This is just a testament to what we have experienced throughout the season, the ups and downs. This group is tested, so just we just got to come out with confidence and not lose our faith in each other.”
And they have to contain Giannis. The ex-MVP won’t win MVP but he is playing like an MVP. The Middleton injury hurts. But against Boston, Antetokounmpo and a sturdy defense may be enough.
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