MILWAUKEE — After missing Game 2 of these conference semifinals because of a nasty quadriceps contusion, Celtics guard Marcus Smart said he would only return for Game 3 if he felt comfortable enough to do all of the physical, fearless things he usually does.
It was no surprise, then, that after making a free throw to pull Boston within two points with 4.6 seconds left Saturday, he subtly informed his teammates that he was calling an audible.
Smart was going to miss the second foul shot intentionally, and heaven help anyone who tried to get in his way after that.
He took a quick dribble and then whipped the ball off the backboard as if he was trying to win a prize in a carnival game. As it caromed off the rim, Smart soared in among trees from both teams and swallowed the rebound.
“It was perfect,” he said.
That should have been the hard part.
Smart absorbed contact from Bucks forward Bobby Portis and missed a tough putback as his momentum carried him toward the sideline.
Still, there was time. Robert Williams put his 7-foot-6 wingspan to good use, but his tap-in was long. Al Horford, who had steadied the Celtics and led their charge back from a 14-point deficit, had a more gentle attempt on the weak side, but it slid out. Horford got one final chance, and this time he put the ball through the net.
Some of the Milwaukee fans screamed in disgust because they thought he’d just tied the game. Others yelped with joy, because they believed Horford was simply too late.
Soon, the replay was shown on the arena’s scoreboard, and the latter group was joined by everyone else. The basket was wiped away, and the Bucks escaped with a 103-101 win that gave them a 2-1 series lead in the best-of-seven.
“I knew I was slightly off,” Horford said, “so I wasn’t very optimistic about it.”
It was a chaotic end to a chaotic, physical game that appeared pulled from a time capsule.
Williams took an elbow to the head and returned after being checked for a concussion. Jayson Tatum ended up on his rear end, five feet behind the basket, after being popped by Giannis Antetokounmpo on a dunk. This was not a game filled with finesse; it was like seeing a black-and-blue mark form in real time.
“We know what it takes and it takes a lot of physicality,” Smart said. “You’ve got to be able to match the other teams’ physicality. You are playing against the defending champs, so it is what it is.”
Smart’s last-ditch effort to send the game to overtime was preceded by a controversial foul call that could have given him a chance to extend it in a more conventional fashion.
With the Celtics trailing, 103-100, and 11.2 seconds left, Jaylen Brown probed in the lane looking for a quick layup that would have forced the Bucks to make some free throws. But Jrue Holiday thwarted that drive, and Brown eventually found Smart at the top of the key.
Holiday rushed toward him and fouled him. There was no disagreement from either side there. As Smart sat on the floor after being knocked down, he made the shooting motion, to indicate that it was a shooting foul.
When the referees ruled that it was a non-shooting foul, Smart simply put his hands atop his head, in disbelief.
“Poor call, poor no call,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “I saw it in person, but also just saw it on film. It’s a shot. Curling into a shot, he’s getting fouled on the way up, bad missed call.”
The Celtics would have preferred to find a way to secure this win before that point, of course. But they were unable to slow down Antetokounmpo, who erupted for 42 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 assists.
Boston’s own All-Star, Tatum, struggled mightily. He was 4 for 19 from the field and finished with 10 points, 3 assists and 1 rebound. The fact that Boston still had a chance despite the diverging performances of these two stars might be even more improbable than Tatum’s clunker.
“Today was just a one-off where I probably was thinking a little bit too much, knowing that they give me a lot of attention,” Tatum said. “Obviously, I passed up some open looks that would have been best for the team. It led to some turnovers and things like that.”
Still, the Celtics charged back from a 13-point deficit in the final nine minutes behind the inspired play of Horford (22 points, 16 rebounds) and Brown (27 points, 12 rebounds).
In the fourth quarter, the duo combined for 27 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists. But it wasn’t quite enough, as the Celtics were unable to overcome a grisly third quarter in which they committed seven turnovers and were outscored, 34-17.
They surrendered home-court advantage when they lost Game 1, and they have potentially two more tries to win once in Milwaukee and keep their season alive.