Game 6s are always eventful. The Boston Celtics wanted to shut the Milwaukee Bucks down with a road win. The Bucks didn’t want to go gentle into the good night, and came out with appropriate intensity.
It paid off. Behind a virtuoso showing by Giannis Antetokounmpo and crudely simple but effective defense, Milwaukee slowed the Cs’ offense to a crawl in spite of strong games from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and guaranteed a deciding final contest in Boston on Saturday with a 97-86 win.
THE GAME FLOW
Attempting to counter Brad Stevens’ shrewd gambit of starting Semi Ojeleye in Game 5, interim Bucks head coach Joe Prunty threw known lil’ buster Thon Maker into the gauntlet as a starter. Aside from a highlight-reel play due to a nifty 1-5 pass for a cool lob by the young Sudanese center, it didn’t matter much early on. The Celtics offense hasn’t been much to sneeze at for large chunks of this series (and, well, season if we’re being honest)—but it was on point for the opening half of the first quarter. Terry Rozier wouldn’t let up his continuous public shaming of Eric Bledsoe (who is going to look like one of the stupidest guys in recent NBA history if Milwaukee loses this series) and went marksman from deep. He was the indisputable offensive leader for the first frame. The rest of the squad mostly worked to facilitate Terry, though Al Horford had one particularly great move: He absolutely humiliated Khris Middleton’s defensive effort with a series of pump-fakes that opened up the lane for a slam. It was glorious.
Milwaukee got their wind back in the tail end of the quarter, thanks largely to the energy Jabari Parker brought off the bench, as he has for much of the series. (For a guy with almost back-to-back ACL tears, his emergence as a third option in the absence of any Bledsoe reliability is somewhat remarkable.) Ending the quarter on a 7-0 run was impressive but Boston held onto its slim 24-22 lead.
Brad pointed out in the customary TNT broadcast coach interview that his squad’s offense stymied whenever they got locked into ISOs and dead-ball situations—these usually resulted in awkward long 2s. This is a shot that pleases no Celtic except Marcus Morris and Jayson Tatum, and Tatum usually only does it out of necessity. In any event, the Celtics kept the ball moving but mostly made dueling runs with the Bucks for much of the second quarter, rather than establishing dominance. Parker, Giannis (and, surprisingly, Bledsoe) catalyzed their squad; Tatum and Rozier provided firepower for our heroes, with some help from Horford.
Around the final third of Q2, the Bucks defense picked up somewhat and correspondingly the Celtics went cold and ISO-ish again. Giannis and Bledsoe capitalized with a furious surge of buckets and dramatically pulled nine points ahead for a halftime lead. The Cs would certainly have some adjustments to make during the break. Perhaps most of all, while they weren’t turning the ball over as they had egregiously in other games during this series, many of the first-half turnovers led to Giannis blitz-runs for thunderous dunks or otherwise successful Bucks offensive plays. They also needed desperately to drive more into the paint.
*Ronhowardvoice* They did not successfully drive more into the paint, at least not to start the second half. *Regularvoice* Joe Prunty is not particularly strategic, but he knew enough to say, “Uh, guys, just like, pack the paint real good, and let them miss jumpers.” (Which poses the question why Jason Kidd, no genius of strategy after his 2016 beginners-luck season but able to say “pack the paint and maniacally trap,” was fired when this year’s Bucks model didn’t look much worse or better under him, IMO, but whatever. Prunty’s non-plan worked tonight.)
Once Boston did start driving, they had—huge shocker —some success! Tatum got this work started. He drove hard to the cup probably knowing he would be denied the FG, which he was by hard pressure from Maker, but here’s a fun fact about Thon “Lil Buster” Maker: He sucks at defending without fouling if his arm doesn’t simply swallow the ball; here, he fouled the hell out of Tatum and sent him to the line. This energized the Celtics to drive and shoot with confidence and erase a double-digit deficit, with Jaylen Brown, who’d been quiet in the first half, finally cooking a bit.
The Bucks’ response was their version of “Give the ball to Mike and get the f*** outta the way,” which substitutes Giannis for MJ, and in fairness that isn’t the worst idea, because Giannis is very Good and maybe Great. Milwaukee pulled back ahead, aided by having reached the bonus two minutes into the third quarter and earning chances to score on every foul. They took a solid if not insurmountable lead against Boston, 74-65, into the final frame.
This was gonna be a grindy finish. One for which your humble recapper turned to a wee drop of the craythur to handle. We’ll start with the obvious, namely that Giannis maintained his frenetic pace and the Celtics had no steady answer for him. (Aron Baynes defended him quite well on one possession but allowed a dunk on another.) Boston also went immensely cold, once again, and much as I’d love to blame Marcus Morris ISOs, he actually did fine down the stretch, all things considered. The Celtics had no rhythm offensively, no knack for getting fast breaks going and no consistent production on threes. Malcolm Brogdon had done well for the entire third quarter and made several clutch buckets at critical moments to stop any Boston momentum. He, Parker and the Greek Freak—the latter with a truly masterful performance—choked the life from the Cs to force a Game 7.
HOT ISH: Despite cold starts it was good to see Jaylen and Jayson play with poise and finesse during the second half, regardless of the final result.
NOT ISH: But we could’ve used a little more brawn, all around. The Bucks outrebounded the Celtics for the first time in this series, and it was a deathblow, combined with how thoroughly they clogged the painted area. Shooting inconsistently and a lack of transition offense rounded out a picture as gross as some depiction of Dorian Gray’s ass.
That Horford fake-out and dunk:
When the Cs offense looked like this, it was great. When it didn’t…well, the score’s at the top of the piece: