MILWAUKEE — The Bucks were in the driver’s seat Monday night.
Already up 2-1 in their best-of-seven NBA Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Celtics, Milwaukee built a seven-point cushion, 80-73, headed into the fourth quarter of Game 4. Giannis Antetokounmpo erupted for 13 points in the third, entering takeover mode. The defending champs, at home at Fiserv Forum, seemed well on their way to a commanding 3-1 series lead.
Or so they thought.
What happened instead was Antetokounmpo looked gassed down the stretch, as Boston flipped the script. The Celtics tallied a whopping 43 points in the fourth quarter, making all but three of their 19 field goal attempts. With 43.2 seconds remaining and his team trailing by 10, 116-106, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer pulled his starters.
The Bucks thought they had the Celtics where they wanted. Starting center Robert Williams was ruled inactive before tip-off because of soreness in his recently surgically repaired left knee. Jaylen Brown picked up his fifth personal foul with 1:47 remaining in the third quarter. Boston came out flat, and continued to play uninspiring basketball throughout the first 36 minutes. But the Celtics turned it around in those final 12 minutes, when it mattered most.
“We won every quarter but one,” said Bucks guard Wesley Matthews. “And that was the most important one. We’ll take the good with it and learn from the bad.”
“That’s the quarter, obviously,” echoed Budenholzer. “It goes without saying.”
Antetokounmpo wouldn’t go as far to call the 116-108 loss a “missed opportunity.”
“I believe everything happens for a reason,” he said. “It wasn’t our game. We had the lead. They played great. We were able to play great defense for three quarters, and played pretty much good defense in the fourth quarter, but they were making shots. It wasn’t our game at the end of the day, so you got to tip your hat and figure out what you can do better in Game 5.
“But everything happens for a reason.”
The pieces were in place for a Bucks victory. Just as they did in Game 3, however, the Celtics hung around, always staying within striking distance.
“We just got to do better closing out games, closing out situations,” Matthews said. “I think there might have been two times where we had a double-digit lead, and as quick as we got that double-digit lead, they cut it to 5, cut it to 3, and took the lead back. We just got to remember what got us that double-digit lead.”
A huge reason — if not, the reason — the Celtics were able to pull off the victory was forward Al Horford. With 30 points, Horford recorded a new postseason career-high, making 11 of his 14 field goal attempts, including 5 of 7 from 3-point range. He knocked down timely shot after timely shot — and was perfect from the field in the fourth, going 6 for 6.
Antetokounmpo, who earned a technical for taunting Horford in the third, had no choice but to offer him props.
“He’s a true pro,” Antetokounmpo said. “Obviously, he led his team down the stretch and made a lot of tough shots. You have to give him credit. A lot of people at 35 [years old] cannot play that way. Hopefully, when we are in his position and we get old, we’re still in the league and we can still compete at the highest level.”
Another reason the Bucks couldn’t hold off the Celtics, even if they don’t want to admit it, was Antetokounmpo’s fatigue. He played 41 minutes, up from his season average of 33 and the most he’s logged this postseason.
There were moments throughout the fourth quarter where Antetokounmpo looked as though he could use a break, hunched over with his hands on his knees. Budenholzer tried to give him a quick one with 5:09 remaining and the Bucks down three, 97-94, but circumstances necessitated he check back in 49 seconds later.
“He never wants to come out,” Budenholzer said. “When he needs a break, especially this time of year, he’ll communicate with me and give me a nod. We’ve got to help him. We’ve got to get him his rest. We’ve got to play well around him. He’s carrying a big load.”
Antetokounmpo didn’t want to feed into the idea that he was tired. Instead, he and the Bucks emphasized they are ready to move on to Game 5.
“No matter what I feel, it doesn’t really matter,” Antetokounmpo said. “Emotions are for movies. Not for basketball.”
“Like my late grandma would tell me, she’d say, ‘I have until midnight,’” added Matthews. “I have until midnight to be mad about this, to think about this. But as soon as 12:01 hits, it’s over with. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
Now with the series tied, Budenholzer tried to muster up some excitement.
“It’s the playoffs,” he said. “That’s how it is. It’s 2-2. We’re going back [to Boston]. It’s exciting. It’s the way it’s supposed to be. It’s going to be a great series. We’re looking forward to Game 5 and going on the road.”
But there’s no doubt he would have rather been up 3-1.