On this night, it was Giannis Antetokounmpo who played like the seasoned vet, repeatedly plowing through Boston’s defense en route to 22 free throws and totals of 32 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists to lead the Bucks to a 123-116 victory over Kyrie Irving and the Celtics. The win allowed Milwaukee to regain control of this series.
“I’m just going to keep being aggressive,” Antetokounmpo said. “That’s what my teammates want me to do. I love getting to the free throw line. I’ve worked on it. I’m shooting my free throws with confidence, so it’s easy points for me and my teammates. I’m just going to keep being aggressive and making the right plays, and sometimes if I’ve got to take it all the way, then I’ll take it all the way.”
Antetokounmpo’s approach, contrasted with Irving’s, was emblematic of how the night played out for both teams. Irving has been in these moments time and again in his career, and far more often than not, he has delivered. Antetokounmpo, on the other hand, is learning what life is like as the dominant force on a favored team in real time.
However, it was Antetokounmpo’s aggression that set the tone for Milwaukee, allowing him to get virtually all of Boston’s forwards in foul trouble and begin a parade to the foul line, particularly in the third quarter, when Milwaukee took over the game.
Irving, on the other hand, spent his night playing hero ball, jacking up one isolated jumper after another and failing to do enough to get his teammates involved. The Celtics settled for far too many long jumpers in this one, taking one more shot in the paint (27) than the Bucks made there (26).
“That’s what they do,” said Gordon Hayward, who had a very forgettable night (2-for-8 for 10 points). “They really suck in when people drive and meet you at the rim. Sometimes it’s two, three, four guys are around. They are doing a good job of flying out afterward and trying to scramble.”
Much of the scrambling done by the Celtics in this one revolved around their trying to find a way to stop Antetokounmpo from crashing through their defense and winding up at the foul line.
The beauty of Milwaukee’s system under Mike Budenholzer — and something that helped the Bucks earn the NBA’s best record in the regular season — is that it forces teams to make a choice: commit to trying to stop Antetokounmpo, a 6-foot-11 human bulldozer, from barreling to the rim or commit to trying to stop the many 3-point shooters the Bucks have surrounded him with.
The Celtics did neither. Milwaukee went 15-for-37 from 3-point range, as Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast — which many around the league doubted would hold up under the bright lights of a road game of this magnitude — came through (even though Eric Bledsoe had yet another awful game in Boston, finishing with nine points on 4-for-15 shooting).
Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, went through Boston’s defense over and over, getting virtually every Celtics wing player in foul trouble and setting the tone for Milwaukee’s takeover of the game in the second half. In the third quarter, Milwaukee was in the bonus by the eight-minute mark, allowing the Bucks to get to the line 17 times in that quarter, eight of which came courtesy of Antetokounmpo.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens benched center Aron Baynes, playing him only two minutes, in favor of forward Semi Ojeleye. He said after the game that he was concerned about Baynes’ ability to get out on 3-point shooters.
“But we may have to go back with that,” Stevens said, “just because he provides a little more protection in the paint. And he’ll take a charge off the ball, which I think is important.”
In other words: The rest of the Celtics did not, which allowed Antetokounmpo to attack with more impunity.
As he paraded to the foul line, some complained about calls, including the partisan sellout crowd, which made its presence felt until Milwaukee broke the game open in the second half.
In truth, Boston shot only four fewer free throws — and made six more. The difference in the game was the way the Celtics allowed the Bucks to dictate the terms of engagement at both ends of the court, something that had little to do with foul shots and everything to do with the approach both teams’ stars brought to the game.
“The refs have a difficult job,” Irving said. “We have a difficult job. Obviously, I could sit up here and complain — we know the disparity and what it is — but I’m not going to put all the emphasis on the refereeing. I think there are a lot of controllable things on our end that we can be better at. Obviously, the officiating is going to be part of it. You wish that things can go your way, but they don’t. We have to be able to respond in a better circumstance. We just have to respond better, and I think we will do that going into Game 4.”
So much of this season has been spent monitoring how the Celtics respond to one crisis or another, often of their own making. On this night, Irving and the Celtics resorted to old habits, including forced shots and arguments on the court.
This was the time of year, though, when Irving was supposed to be the difference. Instead, it was Antetokounmpo — the presumptive league MVP — who was, and as a result, he took home court back for the Bucks.
All Irving was left to do was declare that Game 4 will be different and that he’ll be more forceful attacking the paint.
“I need to just keep my eyes on the rim and just be efficient in that paint area,” Irving said. “I wish that I could have probably a more elaborate answer for you of what I’ve gotta do around that paint with my floater game, what I’m great at.
“But it’s really just about being efficient, especially the rest of this series. From this point on, I don’t think you’ll see another 8-for-22 or any missed layups or looking for the refs for calls or anything like that … when I do get in there, I’m looking to score and looking to finish with contact, whether the refs call it or not.”