At the start of the Celtics’ game against the Bucks in Orlando on Friday, Milwaukee tipped a rebound attempt through Boston’s basket. Since Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was closest to the play, he was credited with the hoop, giving him a 1 for 1 start.
Unfortunately for Tatum, there were no more freebies, and he was unable to do much on his own. The All-Star scuffled through a 2-for-18 shooting night—which included the errant tip-in—and the Celtics fell to Milwaukee, 119-112. The seeding game was the first for both teams since the league was shuttered due to COVID-19 on March 10.
With the score tied at 107, Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo drove through the lane and was initially called for an offensive foul, which would have been his sixth, when he charged into Marcus Smart. But the play was reviewed and overturned to a block, giving Antetokounmpo the three-point play.
After a missed 3-pointer by Jaylen Brown, Bucks forward Khris Middleton hit a 3-pointer at the other end. Brown gave the Celtics one more chance when he converted a 3-point play, but Antetokounmpo answered with another one of his own with 37.6 seconds left, making it 116-110.
Antetokounmpo finished with 36 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists for the Bucks. Smart scored 23 points to lead Boston. Gordon Hayward had 17 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists.
Observations from the game:
▪ There were two big and somewhat controversial plays involving Antetokounmpo late in the game. With 2:30 left and Boston trailing by 2, he hit Celtics center Daniel Theis in the stomach area while trying to get around his screen. The referees stopped the game and reviewed the play to see if it was a “hostile act.” It certainly didn’t look like a hostile act, and they determined that it was not. But it could have been a common foul, which would have been Antetokounmpo’s sixth.
This was referee James Capers’s explanation in a pool interview report released by the NBA:
“Hostile act review does allow for a foul. Had I seen a foul, and the contact been more than incidental, then there would have been a foul on the play. But that did not occur.”
Then there was the block/charge moment with Smart. Initially, the referees reviewed to see if Smart had cleared the restricted area before taking the charge. He did, but he was still moving.
“The excuse was I was late on the charge,” Smart said. “They said the replay center said that I was late and it was a block. Quite frankly, I think we all know what that was about: Giannis’s sixth foul and they didn’t want to get him out. Let’s just call that spade a spade and that’s what it is.”
▪ The start of the third quarter was the low point for Tatum. He missed an easy layup, then was off on a left-handed try at the rim, two shots he would typically make about 90 percent of the time. The struggles seemed to seep in, as he started aiming his jumper rather than shooting it with his normal confidence. He finally hit his first true field goal on a foul-line pull-up with 7.3 seconds left in the third, but that never got him going. Tatum was 0 for 6 from close range, and he missed four shots in the final four minutes, as Boston tried to complete its comeback.
“He got some decent looks off pick-and-rolls,” Stevens said. “They did a good job loading up to him. They did a good job at the rim on him. He’ll go back and look at it. He had a couple nights like that early in the season, too, and the least of our concerns is him finding the net. That’s what he does. So he’ll be fine.”
▪ The biggest development from this game was that Kemba Walker seemed to have his usual burst and was moving quite well on his troublesome left knee. He showed off step-backs and stop-and-go moves and did not appear to be limited or in any pain. Stevens said before the game that the All-Star would be limited to 14-20 minutes, and he ultimately played 19, finishing with 16 points on 5 of 9 shooting. He sat for the entire fourth quarter.
“It felt pretty normal,” Walker said. “It felt very normal. It felt good. I felt very comfortable out there moving.”
Walker said he lobbied to go back in the game, but he knew his attempt was futile.
“I’m not playing that game,” Stevens said. “Kemba’s knee is the most important thing. We’re trying to strengthen it.”
▪ The fake crowd noise stinks. The Bucks were the home team on Friday, so the crowd was cheering for them, but it just didn’t work. Every time a Celtics player took a free throw, fake noise was pumped in that made it sound like it was the last second of Game 7 of the finals. Aside from some fans waving their arms behind the basket, fans don’t even make much noise on foul shots unless it’s in a critical moment of the game.
▪ The Bucks exploded to a 17-2 lead, the lone Boston basket being the one that Milwaukee tipped in. Antetokounmpo, the likely MVP, set the tone quickly with his fierce, attacking style that put the Celtics on their heels. He did not appear rusty at all.
“I thought we had multiple possessions where we had four guys really guarding and we just made a mistake,” Stevens said. “Like, one mistake and they exposed it. And then on the offensive end I just thought we were a little passive early.”
▪ Unsurprisingly, Smart helped the Celtics get back on track. He was his usual pestering, tormenting self. He came up with a tough steal near the sideline and coasted in for a layup, and that play seemed to ignite Boston’s defense a bit. Later, Smart took his turns trying to slow Antetokounmpo in the post and even drew an offensive foul on him when taking a kick to the midsection. He did a little bit of everything. Late in the third he soared in for a tip-in, and then added a 3-pointer that gave the Celtics their first lead, 83-82.
“He was terrific, for sure on the defensive end,” Hayward said. “He did Marcus Smart things that we all are very impressed with and love and that we’ve been feeling in practice the last three weeks. It’s good to see him being disruptive for other guys on the other team.”
▪ The Bucks were without starting point guard Eric Bledsoe and backup guard Pat Connaughton, who recently rejoined the team after recovering from COVID-19.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach