BOSTON – This semifinal of the Eastern Conference between the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks would be the first test of whether the Bucks were real. The skeptics wondered if a regular season Juggernaut, who had never won a playoff series, could rise up against a Boston team that reached the final of the finals last year – and a superstar point keeper who made one of the biggest clutch strikes met, reintroduced in NBA history to secure the 2016 final.
Boston's blowout victory in Game 1 was a catnip for Milwaukee skeptics. The Bucks heard it.
"People say many things," Eric Bledsoe told ESPN.com between games 3 and 4 in Boston. The latter won with 113-1
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While observers wondered if they could falter after Game 1, the Bucks kept a straight keel. "No one hung up or was mad at each other," Brook Lopez told ESPN.com.
They saw the movie and found that they had not played with their usual pace and anger. Instead of sprinting to the corners and standing behind the wall, Boston's transitional defenders built themselves up on the lazy line, the Milwaukee riflemen running on the ground and slowly drifting out of the wing.
They did not help and did not recover defense with the usual force or timing. Perhaps their round in the first round of the Detroit Pistons had been too easy, the five-day break between the series too long.
"I do not think we were prepared for how fast and intense Game 1 would be," Bledsoe said. "We were tired of the discharge, at least it was me."
They watched the video, had the failure and stole themselves for a "must-win" on the border. "It was a bad feeling," said Giannis Antetokounmpo to ESPN.com in Boston. "They cheered their ass at home before 25. When they got up 2-0, it's trouble, we just said to ourselves:" No matter what, no matter how you feel or how you played in Game 1 "We have to go play 2 with a win."
"Everybody brought it this night and since then."
Somehow the Bucks brewed the right mix of humility and confidence. They are aware that they have not achieved anything, but they can certainly accomplish anything, they have almost accidentally set up a team with perfect pecking order, everything flows from Antetokounmpo, Middleton delivers wing scoring, Bledsoe elite defense and some off-the-bounce Oomph , Lopez is the largest long-range shooting specialist.
Apart from some early speed thresholds that had become accustomed to Mike Budenholzer's system, the Milwaukee locker room was a tranquil place. Nobody complains about touch. They're doing their job and going to big team dinners on the street has created a striking contrast to the again-again-again-again-melodrama macro's the hallway in Boston.
When Milwaukee's players and coaches reached the league's record, they began to whisper that they felt they had something special – something the NBA has never done before had felt. They recognized this feeling, but also understood how fragile it was.
When Middleton returns to Charleston, South Carolina to host a children's camp this summer, the young campers often ask him about his goals – if he wants to win a title or form All-Star teams. His response was probably disappointing: "I just want to win a playoff series."
They vowed they would not take Detroit for granted and destroyed the Pistons with almost alarming efficiency. They respect Boston, and they have made up in Game 2 with their own blowout.
They arrived in Boston, a home of horror for them last season, determined to reclaim the home advantage in Game 3, they smelled blood. "Well," said Middleton, "let's get two in a row."
Their shooters began to race behind Boston's wall and get into the corners to stay open for 3s. They found creative ways to bring Antetokounmpo to the ball so that he did not simply put him on the floor with Al Horford perhaps the best defender of Antetokounmpo in the entire league who was lying in wait. They told Antetokounmpo to sometimes sprint in front of the ball and take run-off passes and attack along the diagonal, where it would be harder for Horford to find him.
They presented Boston with various screening actions on and off the ball With bad decisions: Change one other than Horford to Antetokounmpo or get into rotation. When Boston moved, Antetokounmpo tasted. No one but Horford had a chance.
Sometimes that meant Bledsoe and George Hill were looking for Antetokounmpo or vice versa, a way to target Boston's Point Guards – including Kyrie Irving, who fought the defense cruelly in Game 3 and then at the other end in one game 4 brickfest. In Game 3, they got hold of an antetokounmpo-lopez pick-and-roll, which they had hardly ever used in the postseason.
In Game 4, they cleared one side for the two-man game of Middleton-Antetokounmpo:
In this setup, the two best players from Milwaukee work together without a defender in the normal helper position. "It starts with me [the screen] as a threat to launch," said Middleton. "And if both defenders jump out to me, Giannis is such a dangerous player, he only needs half a step room."
Bledsoe found his offensive groove in the second half and bumped into the semifinals against the defenders – transition and bust into the alley for layups and kickout passes. "Khris insulted me after Game 3 because I did not attack enough," Bledsoe told ESPN.com. "He said I'd settle down, I love him for it." He made the performance with two emphatic blocks, including a patented pursuit campaign against Irving later in the game.
The real revelation came at the other end. The Bucks since the first game have held Boston at 100.9 points per 100 possessions, well below the season's worst offense in the league. Obviously Boston was clapping, especially when shooting 9 of 41 from the depths of Game 4, something helped. (Irving is rightly warm for his appearances in Boston, he has made many bad shots, but he has also made a lot of good passes – many "doing the right game" – kickouts – which Boston failed to pay off in Game 4 .)
Kyrie Irving says his confidence in his team to win the series is "unwavering" against the Bucks.
Milwaukee began to change more in Game 2 and even ventured in Game 3 to switch Lopez to Irving. Boston wanted to use Irving-Horford's two-man game – and other combinations – for easy pick-and-pop looks. Milwaukee's players said they could evaporate those looks by changing them. During a film session after Game 1, some of the players – Bledsoe was the loudest in all circumstances – were pushing for Budenholzer to make them switch more.
Only Orlando changed less frequently this season than Milwaukee, according to second-spectrum data. Budenholzer does not like to change. He is such a little old school. Switching is a form of surrender or laziness.
But he gave in and it worked. For teams, it can be difficult to play in one direction throughout the season and change their style if it really matters. It was not difficult for the Bucks because they had developed good, cautious defensive habits – competitive habits – for over eight months. They simply had to translate these habits into a different scheme.
They shone in Boston. At about 11:20 am in the regulation of Game 4, Boston ran one of those dreaded pick-and-rolls by Irving-Horford. Milwaukee switched, leaving Antetokounmpo on Irving (good) and Bledsoe on Horford (not good). Horford rumbled to the block. Bledsoe stood in front of him. Nikola Mirotic crept behind Horford and Marcus Smart in the left corner, if there should be a Luppass. When that pass arrived, Mirotic and Bledsoe horded.
Horford joined Smart, but Middleton was already shooting there. No dice. Smart drove to Jayson Tatum and threw it up, but Middleton had gone to Tatum after handing Smart over to Bledsoe. Tatum had to pump fakes and droplets into the bow. The firing clock ran out.
"One could say," Bledsoe said about this piece, "that everyone [on Boston] started to drop their heads."
After Game 3, the Boston coaches proclaimed the importance of beating any Milwaukee exit – keeping the machine moving until a big shot appeared. (Stop me if you heard that from Boston before this season.) The players largely followed this decree. They drove and danced and drove with wildness, at least until the game felt decided. This well-intentioned effort did not always lead to productivity. Another buck would appear and require more.
"That's what Bud preached in movie sessions," Middleton said. "We're tall and athletic, just fly around."
A subconscious star of this crashing defense: George Hill, the reclamation project that scored Boston for 36 combined points in Games 3 and 4. His defense might have been as good as his offense. Hill's rotations arrived on time – with the ball's flight – and he was always in the right place. In two games he might not have taken a wrong half step.
Hill and Pat Connaughton, Milwaukee's other Boston-based banker, gathered for a series of glorious twists towards the end of the third quarter. This led to one of the game's key highlights: Connaughton jumps to a Terry Rozier 3. Reject Pointer – Rozier has been 3-of-18 since game 2 – he licked and squeezed the other end to raise Milwaukee's eight
(This was a critical section of the game: Milwaukee opened the lead with Antetokounmpo on the bench This was not an absolute coincidence: Milwaukee had just left Boston with Antetokounmpo but still banked over the first three games.)
Milwaukee is not finished with this series. The Bucks will not miss Boston or Game 5. In training between games 3 and 4, Antetokounmpo told ESPN that the team had "done their job" to win Game 3 and get a split. One reporter – this one – replied that Antetokounmpo was not the sort that would be satisfied with a breakup when an opportunity to marginalize Boston staring at him. Antetokounmpo is a murderer. That's why he's the likely MVP.
Antetokounmpo smiled. "My job is over," he said, "when the whole thing is won."