– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
BOSTON — The strategical human wall that their opponent has continued to unleash on the Milwaukee Bucks’ soon-to-be-league-MVP superstar was almost as daunting as the psychological wall that awaited the Bucks in coming back to the place that became their personal house of horrors during last year’s postseason.
In response, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the rest of his Bucks in lockstep, soared over, ran around and powered straight through any green-and-white-hued phalanx on Friday night to reclaim the home-court advantage while atoning for a subpar start to the series last week.
Antetokounmpo scored 32 points while producing 13 rebounds and eight assists and the Bucks once again dominated the third quarter in defeating the Boston Celtics 123-116, taking a 2-games-to-1 series lead in winning their second straight game. Last season saw Milwaukee lost all four games in Beantown while being eliminated in seven games by the Celtics in the first round, but Giannis’ aggressiveness on Friday night became the catalyst in assuring that a repeat barren spell in Boston would not be part of the equation in 2019.
“I think the defense and the togetherness tonight as we worked our way through the game and the third quarter stood out to me where we could get stops, and we could get out and go,” said Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer. “…The spirit of the group is in a good place and now the challenge is to keep it there and get ready for a couple days from now.”
Boston seemed to have devised the perfect scheme against the Greek Freak during last Sunday’s win by the Celtics in Milwaukee to initially steal the home court, forming an amoeba-like wall of at least three players that met Giannis anytime he drove to the basket. Antetokounmpo struggled all throughout that game on Sunday, but completely flipped the script tonight in not only forcing his way through the defense but setting up his teammates on the outside who responded by making 15 three-pointers.
“I’m just going to keep being aggressive. That is what my teammates want me to do. I’ve said that in the past, and that’s what I’m going to keep going,” said Antetokounmpo, who made 16 of 22 free throws in tonight’s contest. “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 keep making plays and sometimes if I got to take it all the way, I got to take it all the way.”
Six of Antetokounmpo’s free throw makes came in the third quarter, where the Bucks made hay once again by scoring 40 points while shooting 65 percent from the field (11-of-17) and knocking home six of their eight three-point attempts. Along with their hot shooting, Milwaukee’s aggression forced the Celtics to put the Bucks in the bonus with well over seven minutes remaining in the quarter.
Milwaukee made 12 of 17 free throws in the third, turning around a one-point halftime deficit and taking a 95-87 lead going into the fourth.
“I just think that ultimately they made a lot of plays in that quarter; we didn’t,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “I thought we got a little deep on the drive, whereas in the first half I thought we were doing a really good job of getting to the right depth and then making the next right play. We turned it over a few times; they got going in transition. They got going downhill. We weren’t quite as tight as – as we like to be, as, as loading up to the ball and making it tough to get downhill and keeping them off the foul line. So you know if – if there’s anything, it’s just stuff we have to do better.”
Despite the dominating third, the most important stretch of the game for the Bucks came in the second quarter after it found itself down 46-34 after a Marcus Morris three-pointer with 5:58 remaining. Antetokounmpo made four consecutive free throws afterward, and three-pointers from Pat Connaughton, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic were all part of a 21-10 run to end the half. Connaughton scored 11 of his 14 points in the first half points, making 3-of-5 threes in the first 24 minutes, while fellow reserve guard George Hill exploded for 21 points, half of the 42 bench points the Bucks scored tonight.
“Our starters have been good all year long and when I got here one of the things I had to do was give them breaks and by saying that is you have to go in and change the game,” Hill said. “Either we take the score up or keep it the same and that’s going to be energy and effort and that is something I think as a group, all our guys coming off the bench we take pride in that.”
Milwaukee’s aggression also translated on the defensive end, scoring 28 points off 18 Celtics’ turnovers while limiting Boston to 14-of-36 shooting in the second half (38.9 percent).
“The third quarter is where they really made their mark on the game,” said Celtics guard Kyrie Irving, who led Boston with 29 points. “You have to give credit [to Milwaukee]. George Hill was the “X factor” having 21 off the bench, going 9-for-12. We just have to do a better job of eliminating that. I think that we did a great job of starting off the game very well. Going into halftime, obviously ending the half in the fashion that probably wasn’t our best. Then coming out in that third quarter and giving up 40 points, that’s not a characteristic you want to carry over into the next game. We’ll be better.