MILWAUKEE – Five takeaways from the Milwaukee Bucks’ 103-101 victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 3 Saturday at Fiserv Forum to take a 2-1 lead in their Eastern Conference semifinal series:
1. Marcus Smart might have a point, when he needed 3
When Smart, Boston’s defensive-minded point guard, inbounded with 11.2 and got the ball back out top, he didn’t have many options. He was deep, slightly to the right and his momentum was headed toward the sideline. Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday jumped him from behind Jaylen Brown’s screen, so Smart seemed to go into the best shooting form available to him at that moment.
Which was ruled no shooting form at all. The contact came before any attempt to get off a shot, the referees ruled. That meant two free throws, not three, with the Celtics down 103-100, now with 4.6 seconds left.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer took it a step further, saying that Smart was making a rip-through move designed to snooker the refs. “Marcus Smart tried to do the [Kevin] Durant sweep-through thing,” Budenholzer said. “[We were] fortunate that it was two free throws, but we were not trying to foul.”
There were a couple of things wrong with that, though. Maybe Milwaukee should have been trying to foul — it had a terrific opportunity when Brown veered into the paint, Holiday an easy whack away. There were about eight seconds remaining then, so maybe Budenholzer didn’t like the idea of letting Boston get within a point with that much time left.
He seldom does. On the scale of coaches who want to foul when protecting a 3-point lead vs. those who abhor it, Budenholzer ranks near the latter.
“Every coach is probably different,” he said. “It’s a big philosophical question. … There’s nothing that’s perfect, unfortunately. You’ve gotta work on it. You’ve gotta understand what you’re doing and be your best at end of games.”
That still left unanswered, why would Smart try to swing his arms for a rip-through call, knowing those aren’t treated as shooting fouls anymore? Did he not know how those are adjudicated now? Did he think he could fool the refs?
“It wouldn’t make sense to do a rip-through move on the 3-point line when you got a clear shot for three down three,” Smart said. “They didn’t give me an explanation. When I went to ask, they looked at me funny, said to go to the free-throw line.
“It’s not like he got me down low. I was in my shooting motion, I thought it was three.”
Holiday did jump right into Smart’s space, so the question remained, did he make contact before the Celtics guard got his arms started up? Officially, not. Holiday said he wanted to crowd and entice Smart into driving inside the arc. Though that, too, would have made zero sense to Smart.
The alternative would have been to avoid contact entirely and let Smart — a 33% shooter from downtown during the season and 2-of-10 in this series — launch badly, in a hurry.
2. Finally, a successful, intentionally missed free throw.
We still haven’t found Sasquatch, a unicorn or Diogenes’ one true honest man. But we were treated to an intentionally missed free throw that did exactly what it was intended to do: create chaos and very nearly a game sent into overtime.
Since Smart was limited to two foul shots with 4.6 seconds left but a gap of three points to close, he did what he could: Made the first, then shot the ball flat and hard across the rim and against the glass. First guy to the ball as it leaked off to the left? Smart himself.
“Marcus got off the line pretty quick,” Holiday said.
Smart flipped the ball toward the rim. Then Celtics big man Robert Williams III batted it up and over to the right side. That’s where Al Horford was planted. He tapped it once, no good. He tapped it again … too late.
The Celtics momentarily celebrated what seemed like a tie at 103-103, though everyone knew a replay was imminent. Even before the game officials reached a verdict, a scoreboard replay had Horford — with a stellar showing: 22 points, 16 rebounds and five assists four weeks shy of his 36th birthday — and his mates heading up the visitors’ tunnel.
3. Something else about which Tatum can think.
Jayson Tatum’s misfires in Game 3 piled up quickly. He was 2-of-9 by halftime, then made only one of his eight field-goal attempts in the third quarter when the Celtics got doubled on the scoreboard 34-17.
That period was a disaster for the Boston forward — every time he put up a shot, you thought maybe this would hit and get him going. Instead, the bricks piled up as if on command by DJ Khaled.
By the fourth quarter, Tatum had had enough. He left the scoring to teammates Brown and Al Horford, tried to find open men and launched only two shots.
It was a nightmarish performance that undercut some of the praise lavished on Tatum as a now-24-year-old prodigy, though the player downplayed any real significance.
“Today was just a one-off where I probably was thinking a little bit too much, knowing that they give me a lot of attention,” Tatum said. “Obviously I passed up some open looks that would have been best for the team. It led to some turnovers and things like that.
“I don’t think they changed anything. I think they’re doing a good job of showing a crowd and being physical. I was just thinking a little too much today.”
Could be. But Wesley Matthews in particular and his Milwaukee cohorts busted their butts denying and pestering Tatum, normally the Celtics’ biggest scoring threat. And let’s not forget a pattern that has emerged in these postseason clashes with the Bucks: Tatum’s three worst shooting performances in 57 playoff games have come against Milwaukee. There was a 2-of-9 night in Game 2 in the 2018 first round near the end of Tatum’s rookie year; a 2-of-10 mess in Game 2 of the East semifinals a year later, and then Saturday.
4. Antetokounmpo stakes claim as the NBA’s best.
It says something that a guy who puts up 42 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and two blocks can rank as no higher than the fourth takeaway from a game like this. Let’s just come out and say it: Giannis Antetokounmpo is in that realm of superstars who get taken for granted. He has come through so well, so often, dragging Milwaukee on many nights where it needs to go.
Antetokounmpo has climbed the ladder of offensive burden in this series, upping his shot attempts from 25 in Game 1 to 27 in the disappointment of Game 2 to 30 Saturday. He unleashed a variety of weapons, from jump hooks and 3-pointers to mid-range jumpers and of course his bull rushes to the basket for dunks and finger rolls. He dished out punishment with his elbows and the ball but took plenty too.
Antetokounmpo’s approach? No scheme or master plan. “Take whatever’s in front of me,” he said.
As gaudy as his stats were, it was his bruising performance that earned them.
“He’s so good at being mentally strong,” center Brook Lopez said. “He obviously has lots of guys throwing themselves at him when he’s trying to get into his moves and make plays for himself and everyone else. He does a great job of sticking with it, staying in the game, and just keeping his mojo … It can be frustrating at times. He does a great job of just kind of letting it go like water off a duck’s back.”
5. The refs might have favored … both teams?
The Celtics didn’t like the way Smart’s play out top was called. They felt the Bucks in general and Antetokounmpo in particular got away with some uncalled contact. Some felt Holiday pushed Tatum down when he scored a desperate bucket in the lane to beat the shot clock and take a 103-100 lead (though replays showed Tatum falling when Holiday stepped on his sneaker).
Boston coach Ime Udoka, snarky in the aftermath, said “I’ll teach my guys to flop more.”
Uh, please, no.
However irked the Celtics were, the Bucks had data on their side. They shot precisely zero free throws over the final 16:33 of the game — that’s right, 0-of-0 in the fourth quarter of a playoff game — and had only 17 all game to Boston’s 34. Through three games, the Celtics have shot 69 free throws and been called for 69 fouls. The Bucks, 51 and 67.
Budenholzer wisely kept NBA HQ in New York out of his pocket, saying simply “We’ve got to keep them off the free-throw line.” Antetokounmpo walked that fine/no-fine line more cutely.
“How much does it cost if I say something, a comment about the refs?” he wondered from the podium. “Is it $20,000? It’s a lot of money. So I should not do it. I’ll save my money. I’ve got to pay for diapers.”
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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