The Bucks had a chance to lock up the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs by simply defeating the undermanned Cavaliers on the final day of the regular season. Instead, they sat their top players and took the loss, seeming to indicate that avoiding the Nets in the first round was more important than potentially having home-court advantage in the second.
Still, the decision was not totally the Bucks’. The Celtics had a game against the Grizzlies later in the day, and they could have punted it and stayed out of the No. 2 spot. Coach Ime Udoka knew how he felt about the situation but wanted to be certain that his players were on board, too. The response was swift and unanimous.
“It was a pretty short conversation,” Udoka said Saturday. “I think all of us agreed that we wanted to play our best basketball and not try to manipulate anything. [The Bucks] had a choice to play the last game, and we did against Memphis. They didn’t, and they gave up the home-court advantage.”
The Celtics throttled the Grizzlies, swept the Nets in the first round, and are now in position to benefit from the fearless approach they took one month ago. This conference semifinal series against the Bucks has reached Game 7, and on Sunday afternoon it will be played at TD Garden. It will not be quiet inside.
“[The Bucks] made their choice with that,” Udoka said, “and here’s where we’re at now.”
It will be Udoka’s first experience of this kind in Boston, but some Celtics who have been here longer have a better idea of what to expect. Veteran guard Marcus Smart, for one, insinuated that the Bucks’ decision was not wise.
“I just understand and know that being in the Garden is not a place you want to be on the road in Game 7,” he said.
For the Bucks, the general path of this series must be at least somewhat comforting. In these playoffs that have been filled with one home-team romp after another, this matchup has been an outlier, with the road team winning four of the first six games.
The Bucks took Games 1 and 5 in Boston, stealing the latter by charging back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit and leaving the Celtics numb. But facing elimination, the Celtics rebounded with an emphatic 108-95 win in Game 6 on Friday night behind Jayson Tatum’s 46-point eruption.
Momentum certainly feels like it is on the Celtics’ side, but over the past six games unexpected shifts have come suddenly. Also, the Bucks have shown that they are worthy defending champions.
“They’re a great team,” Tatum said. “I think everyone over there knows their role and everybody is a star in their role. They complement each other really well. They’re well coached, they run great sets, and they’re not going to beat themselves. And they’ve done it before, and we know that.”
Nevertheless, the Bucks could be discouraged by the fact that they were unable to close out the series at home on a night when superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was masterful. The two-time league MVP had 44 points, 20 rebounds, and 6 assists, and even made 14 of 15 free throws. He can’t give his team much more than that, and because of the lack of suitable weapons around him with fellow All-Star Khris Middleton still sidelined because of a knee injury, Milwaukee’s task appears daunting.
The Celtics are hopeful that they will welcome back Robert Williams, who has missed the last three games because of a bone bruise on his surgically repaired left knee. Udoka said Saturday that the swelling and pain have dissipated, and that Williams is just dealing with some minor movement restrictions.
“He’s legitimately day to day,” Udoka said.
The Celtics have won two of the last three without their talented young center, anyway, and if not for their late collapse in Game 5, they would have been perfect. So they will push forward either way, and they insist that they will be ready.
“This is it,” Tatum said. “Do or die. It’s going to be fun.”