MILWAUKEE — The Celtics flipped the switch, just like they said they would. They pantsed the best player in the world and delivered a message that they are a force to be reckoned with in this NBA tournament.
The Celtics humbled the NBA’s top seed Sunday, smothering Giannis Antetokounmpo and racing to a 112-90 win over the Bucks in the first game of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
The Greek Freak finished with 22 points, but anybody who watched the game knows he was humbled. He made only seven of 21 shots. Three of his baskets were 3-pointers. He had 1 point in the first quarter and made only two of seven shots in the first half when the Bucks fell behind by 15. The Freak’s shot was blocked three times in the restricted area. These things just do not happen.
Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, Jaylen Brown, and Semi Ojeleye took turns on Giannis and frustrated the man who is almost certain to be named NBA MVP.
“When they were guarding the paint and I tried to spin or change direction, there was a second guy there,’’ acknowledged Antetokounmpo.
Horford blocked Giannis’s shot a couple of times, including a highlight reel summit meeting that triggered Boston’s second-half romp. Early in the fourth, Brown dunked on Giannis, hung on the rim, then stared him down. Not very respectful, especially on Greek Easter.
“Put that in your Greek salad,’’ retired Celtic No. 31 Cedric Maxwell hollered from radio row.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer was reluctant to own what he witnessed. “Credit to Boston, individually and collectively,’’ he grumbled. “They played well today and we didn’t.’’
It was more than that, coach. The Celtics hog-tied Giannis where he does his best work — in the paint.
“He’s such a great player,’’ said Horford. “Our focus was to make sure we made it tough on him every time. All of our guys were on him every time, making sure he earned everything he got.
“We all understand how we needed to defend and how dangerous he is once he gets in the paint, we just wanted to challenge and contest every shot and I felt we were able to do that today.I felt like our focus level was good from the beginning.’’
Said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, “We tried to guard Giannis as hard as we could. That’s a team collective effort and Al obviously was assigned to him but I thought the whole team was cognizant of him. You’ve got to pay that guy a lot of attention when he’s driving the ball.’’
Budenholzer didn’t want to give the Celtics too much credit.
“Giannis, as great as he’s been, he hasn’t been perfect every night,’’ said the Bucks coach. “He’s hard on himself. They’re doing some things well, but I think Giannis will play better and I’m sure he’s looking forward to Tuesday just like we are.’’
Swell, coach. Meanwhile, see what you can do about Eric Bledsoe. Coach Cal’s former point guard was humiliated against the Celtics last year and submitted a 6-point stink bomb Sunday. It’s pretty clear the Celtics are in his head.
Sunday’s win will temporarily mute well-earned criticism these Celtics generated in their sleepwalk and “toxic” 2018-2019 regular season. The stunning rout — submitted on the road — serves notice that these Celtics are what we thought they were back in September. They are a serious threat to advance to the NBA Finals. The goring of the Bucks will be received as a stark slap of reality for fans in Milwaukee, Toronto, and Philadelphia. The Eastern Conference, dominated by LeBron James for the last eight years, is up for grabs and the Celtics look capable of getting to the Finals.
Paul Pierce, another Celtic from another cocky Boston team, weighed in on ESPN and said, “I don’t know where Milwaukee goes from here . . . I think it’s over.’’
Get back, Loretta!
Hyperbole and hysteria aside, this one is going to reverberate across NBA America. The Bucks haven’t advanced to the second round of the playoffs since Ray Allen was their star in 2001. Sunday’s beatdown guarantees that they’re going to endure 48 hours of speculation. Despite 60 regular-season wins, tops in the NBA, we don’t know if they are ready for Prime Time.
Leave it to the ever-humble Stevens to deliver perspective.
“This is a hard team to play against and that wasn’t their best game,’’ said the Boston coach. “We’re going to have to be awful good on Tuesday.’’
The Celtics were good on Sunday. And the Bucks were just plain awful.