MILWAUKEE — The starters for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics spent the conclusions of Games 1 and 2 on their respective benches, with the first two games of their Eastern Conference semifinal series ending before the final buzzer sounded in blowout victories for each team.
Saturday’s Game 3 matinee at Fiserv Forum provided the first wire-to-wire contest of the best-of-seven series as the Bucks edged the Celtics 103-101 at the buzzer to take a 2-1 lead and protect the home-court advantage they earned in Boston.
Celtics center Al Horford’s would-be game-tying tip-in was initially ruled good on the court, but review showed it fell in after time expired.
Boston came back from a 14-point third-quarter deficit to take a 100-99 lead with just under two minutes to go in regulation on two free throws from Jaylen Brown, but Giannis Antetokounmpo had a go-ahead lay-in with 44.3 seconds left. Jrue Holiday then hit the eventual game-winner with 11.2 seconds left to give the Bucks a 103-100 lead.
Holiday fouled Marcus Smart with 4.6 seconds left to set up a pair of bonus free throws. Smart made the first to set up an intentional miss on the second, and he did it perfectly as he and Robert Williams III had chances on the putback.
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Both missed however among a scramble amid Milwaukee bigs Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis and the game ended after the short review of Horford’s final attempt.
“I had a pretty good view and I thought it was close, you know?” Lopez said. “I was right there and I saw Al tip it and then I saw the little red outline go off on the backboard, so it was very close. In that moment, I don’t know which way it was.”
Holiday wondered at just how quickly Smart got off the free-throw line to get the first putback attempt off and went through the final few attempts by the Celtics.
“That’s a long clock,” Holiday said. “Glad it went our way.”
From his vantage point down the court, Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said it was “just both teams scrapping for a rebounds and scrapping for a win.”
Antetokounmpo, who shot just 38.5% from the floor (20-for-52) over the first two games for 52 points went 16-for-30 on Saturday for 42 points to lead all scorers. He also had 12 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and two blocks.
“I just try to read what’s in front of me, play to my strengths as much as possible,” Antetokounmpo said of his mindset. “I know what my strengths are. But yeah, I just tried to read what’s in front of me. I just play with my instincts.
“Sometimes I’m going to make the right play, sometimes I’m going to make the wrong play, but as long as I play within my strengths I’m going to be in a good place.”
Jrue Holiday added 25 points on 11-of-30 shooting and seven rebounds.
Grayson Allen started in place of Bobby Portis, but he was plagued with foul trouble and did not score and attempted just three shots. Brook Lopez had 13 points and 10 rebounds but also had foul trouble and missed large chunks of action. Pat Connaughton scored 11 points off the Bucks’ bench while Portis had nine.
Brown led Boston with 27 points while Horford added 22, with 12 coming in the fourth quarter to fuel the Celtics’ rally.
They scored 18 points in the opening 4½ minutes of the fourth quarter — one more point than they scored the entire third quarter.
“It felt like we didn’t score probably on a couple possessions,” Budenholzer said of Boston’s fourth-quarter comeback. “When it gets to the fourth quarter and you get a clean look, it’d be great to make some of those. Credit to Boston. They made a couple — Horford at least one and Brown.
“And they got to the free-throw line. We gotta keep them of the free-throw line. The difference in the free-throw game — they got 33 to our 17 — we’ve got to do a better job of keeping them off the free-throw line and Giannis has gotta continue to be in attack mode, our team’s gotta be in attack mode.
“We’ve gotta flip the free-throw game. You’re fortunate to win a game when a team shoots twice as many free throws as you do.”
Jayson Tatum was held to 10 points on 4-of-19 shooting. Williams (10 points) and Derrick White (14) also reached double figures for the Celtics.
Smart, who missed Game 2 with a right thigh bruise, returned for Boston and scored nine points on 1-of-7 shooting.
Milwaukee worked in veteran point guard George Hill for nearly 11 minutes off the bench after the 36-year-old had missed the regular-season finale and the first seven games of the postseason with an abdominal strain suffered on April 8. Though he didn’t score, he did draw two key offensive fouls and provided some relief as the Bucks’ perimeter players had foul trouble.
In a foul-plagued first half, Boston took a 50-46 lead into the break thanks to a 16-for-17 effort from the free-throw line while Milwaukee was 7-for-10. The Celtics also scored 10 points off eight Bucks turnovers, while the defending champions managed just one point off four forced turnovers.
Follow Jim Owczarski on Twitter @JimOwczarski.