MILWAUKEE — After doing what they needed to over the first three quarters facing elimination against the Bucks, the Celtics found themselves in a familiar spot.
They were up by 14 points early in the fourth, in position to finish off Milwaukee and move on to the next one. But one game after allowing a similar lead to disappear in a similar spot, Boston started to let it happen again.
The Bucks pulled within 4, Fiserv Forum was on fire, and someone needed to do something about it or else the Celtics’ season would come to an end.
But then Jayson Tatum stepped in and stepped up, crafting one of the signature moments of his young career and helping finish off the Bucks, 108-95, to force Game 7 Sunday at TD Garden.
Tatum scored 16 of his 46 points in the fourth, more than helping offset another dominant performance by Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished with 44 points and 20 rebounds.
The Bucks, who trailed by as many as 18, pulled within 85-81 on an Antetokounmpo 3-pointer from the top of the key with 8:42 left.
But Tatum would not let his team collapse. Not this time.
Over a stretch of less than three minutes he hit a tough baseline fadeaway with the shot clock running down, drilled a 3-pointer from the left arc, then hit another baseline jumper and another three, helping Boston push its lead to 95-87. The lead was never in danger again.
Observations from the game:
▪ The Celtics put an emphasis on 3-point shooting at the start. This approach can turn ugly quickly if it doesn’t work, with lower-percentage attempts igniting fast breaks for Milwaukee. But Boston had a scorching start from beyond the arc. It’s first eight shots were 3-pointers and it connected on 8 of 15 in the first quarter, with Marcus Smart and Tatum combining to go 7 for 9. The problem was that this unusually hot beginning resulted in just a 28-26 lead.
▪ Antetokounmpo needed just 95 seconds to lower his head and draw shooting fouls on Grant Williams and Al Horford. It was just as concerning for Boston that the below-average free throw shooter started 6 for 6 from the line. The Celtics may have caught a break moments later, though, when Antetokounmpo was called for a charge while being defended by Williams despite minimal contact. After that, he eased up on attacking and settled for more perimeter shots, perhaps aware of picking up a second early foul.
▪ With eight minutes left in the second quarter, the Bucks threw the ball away and Antetokounmpo committed a foul to stop the fast break. This wasn’t a smart decision, because his foul situation is much more important than allowing an early layup. And it almost proved incredibly costly a minute later, when Antetokounmpo broke free on a fast break and charged into Smart on a layup. The officials ruled Smart was in the restricted area. The Celtics challenged the call, but replay showed that Smart’s heel was clearly on the line. The basket counted, Antetokounmpo avoided the foul, and Smart picked up one. A big swing.
▪ Derrick White’s powerful series continued with an excellent first half. During one stretch late in the second quarter he hit a 3-pointer, spun through the lane for a floater, drew a charge against Antetokounmpo (his third), and drew a shooting foul. He’s really good at going at his own pace and finding seams when he needs to.
▪ In the first half, Boston’s solid shooting and low turnover rate helped keep the Bucks out of transition, where they’re dangerous, and forced them into halfcourt sets, where their offense is clunky without injured Khris Middleton. The Bucks scored just 17 second-quarter points and went to halftime trailing, 63-53.
▪ It’s been addressed in this space before, but it’s stunning that Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer continues to stick with George Hill off the bench. He’s been a liability on defense and empty space on offense. The first half was more of the same. He missed his only shot, was targeted on defense, and was a minus-8 in just under six minutes of action. The Celtics aren’t complaining.
▪ The Celtics struck first in the third quarter and appeared to have the Bucks on the ropes after Antetokounmpo picked up his fourth foul and Brown drilled a deep 3-pointer to give them a 68-50 lead. They couldn’t quite deliver a knockout punch there, but they did a good job of steadying themselves after the Bucks made a run that figured to be coming.
▪ Antetokounmpo takes his time at the free throw line, but he also takes his time signaling for the ball. The referees usually wait for him, but in the first quarter one tossed him the ball a bit early, perhaps to speed it up. But it didn’t matter, because Antetokounmpo just tossed it back.
▪ One of the shot clocks was inoperable at the start, so they turned off the other one to even the playing field and used clocks on the floor during the first half. It’s hard to say whether it had much effect, but there was just one shot-clock violation before the issue was fixed at the start of the third quarter.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.