Before taking questions after his team got blown out in Game 7, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer made sure to congratulate the Celtics on their hard-fought series win in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal.
“I just want to take a second to give a lot of credit, a lot of respect to the Boston players, the coaching staff, and coach [Ime] Udoka,” Budenholzer said. “Phenomenal job. I have a ton of respect for them. I wish them the best going forward. They were the better team in a seven-game series.”
The Celtics eliminated the defending champions Sunday evening with a 109-81 victory at TD Garden, advancing to Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three years. While the Bucks came up short in the extremely physical, defensive-oriented series, Budenholzer was not the only one to express the utmost respect for the Celtics.
After the game, Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo embraced multiple Celtics, including Jayson Tatum and Al Horford, on the court. Even though Antetokounmpo wouldn’t pass along exactly what he told Tatum, he stressed the importance of sportsmanship.
“It hurts not to win, but, at the end of the day, the way my mom and dad raised me, I’m a good human being, I have to wish the best for them moving forward,” he said. “I think he played great to win the series, and I wished him the best of luck for him to continue playing great and for his team to hopefully win a championship. They’re a great team. They have great chemistry and they have an opportunity to win one.”
Budenholzer and Antetokounmpo agreed this series against the Celtics made the two-time MVP a better player across the board, from his ability to attack the rim, to his playmaking. Budenholzer said he was “beyond impressed” with Antetokounmpo’s improvement from Game 1 to 7, as he figured out ways to get to the rim and find his teammates.
The problem for the Bucks was that nobody else could make a shot.
“Despite losing tonight, despite the series getting done, I think the way Giannis evolved throughout this series, the way Giannis played against a very good defensive team, against a lot of good individual defenders, was like another one of those growth moments and growth opportunities,” Budenholzer said. “I thought he was phenomenal.”
The offensive burden on Antetokounmpo increased tremendously in the absence of teammate Khris Middleton, who was sidelined for the entire series with a left MCL sprain. Antetokounmpo was clearly Milwaukee’s primary source of offense, averaging 31.7 points, but his individual effort couldn’t power the Bucks much further on Sunday.
In Game 7, Antetokounmpo accounted for 25 points on 26 shots, 20 rebounds, and 9 assists. That stat line wasn’t going to cut it, given his teammates’ offensive limitations. Milwaukee shot an abysmal 4 of 33 (12.1 percent) from behind the arc on Sunday — and that poor 3-point shooting was not a new development. In the seven-game series, the Celtics made 53 more 3-pointers than the Bucks, the largest differential in NBA playoff history.
Even without Middleton, Budenholzer didn’t make any excuses.
“Every team goes through something,” he said. “Nobody feels sorry for us. It’s an age-old equation. The calculus of the NBA is you have to have good players, you have to get a little bit lucky, and you have to be healthy. You need all three of those things to win and advance in the playoffs. I’ve heard it a million times.”
Antetokounmpo sounded confident things might have gone differently if Middleton were available, but he, too, didn’t want to make excuses. He said he still relished the series for its high level of play and intensity.
“Both teams were being physical,” he said. “Both teams were playing great defense. Both teams wanted to win. None of the teams gave up. It was hard. It wasn’t easy. I enjoyed it. At the end of the day, when somebody beats you, you have to respect it.”
So, what’s next for the Bucks as the Celtics head to Miami for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday night?
Antetokounmpo doesn’t have any plans to watch how the rest of the postseason unfolds. Instead, he’ll take time to rest his body and spend time with his family before getting back on the court again. He hopes his team treats the loss as motivation and a learning experience, using the Celtics as an analogy to make his point.
“For Boston, they won in 2008,” he said. “Now, if they’re going to win again, who knows? But at the end of the day, for this young, amazing, talented team, they have their ups and downs. They’ve been to the Eastern Conference finals and weren’t able to get through. They’ve lost in the second round. They’ve been to the Eastern Conference finals again. It’s all a learning experience for them.”
The Bucks are hopeful this exit from the conference semifinals will serve them just the same.