Game 1 of the Bucks’ first-round series against the Celtics had both everything you’d want in a great playoff game and everything you’ve come to expect – good and bad – from the team this season. Unfortunately, it ended with a Milwaukee loss in Boston, 113-107.
Sunday night’s contest was exciting and dramatic, an up-and-down affair that saw the Bucks come back from a 10-point deficit with less than five minutes to play, Khris Middleton hit an incredible tying three-pointer at the buzzer and a thrilling overtime period. Giannis Antetokounmpo played like the superstar he is – and the best player in the series – while Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon provided much-needed auxiliary scoring and the Bucks never gave up, nearly stealing the opener.
But, ultimately, they didn’t do enough, with critical failings – some old, some new – torpedoing their upset attempt. Milwaukee dug itself an early hole, committed too many turnovers and fouls, didn’t defend the three-point line or rebound well – especially in crucial moments – and endured ill-timed poor performances from three important rotation players.
Going into a seemingly favorable series against this injury-depleted Boston team (without its two best players, Kyrie Irving and Gordan Hayward, and with guard Marcus Smart also unavailable), the Bucks knew they were going to have to get offensive contributions from players other than Antetokounmpo to attack the NBA’s top defense. They knew they were going to have to take care of the ball, rebound and defend the 3-point line. None of that changes going forward; they just have to do it all better in Game 2 on Tuesday night.
1. Something I liked
In last year’s first-round playoff matchup against the Toronto Raptors, Middleton might as well not have played. Having missed much of the season due to a hamstring injury and battling illness for part of the series, Middleton – then and now the Bucks’ No. 2 scoring option – averaged just 13.6 points per 36 minutes and shot less than 40 percent from the field.
This year, after his best professional season (20.1 points per game on 46.6 percent shooting), even with the additions of Jabari Parker and Eric Bledsoe, Middleton had to give Milwaukee more. In Game 1, he did. Middleton hit 12 of 20 shots, including 5 of 7 threes, and finished with 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists (and he was a team-high plus-11). His overtime-forcing, buzzer-beating three-pointer from way downtown was – outcome notwithstanding – a truly exhilarating moment.
2. Something I didn’t like
Two players with little playoff experience, Bledsoe and Parker, looked overwhelmed. Bledsoe, who hadn’t been to the postseason since he was with the Clippers in 2013, forced too much and was sloppy, playing his worst game in months and finishing with nine points (on 4 of 12 shooting), four assists and five turnovers in 33 minutes. Parker, who was injured the last two times Milwaukee went to the playoffs, wasn’t his usual forceful self on the offensive end. He appeared unassertive and just going through the motions, scoring only two points (on 1 of 5 shooting), his quietest performance since mid-February.
The two players, who are supposed to take some pressure off Antetokounmpo, were a combined minus-7. Troublingly, Parker played less than 15 minutes, including two in the fourth quarter and zero in overtime. The Bucks will need more from Bledsoe and Parker.
3. Something I learned
At this time last year, Snell was playing his best basketball, hitting open three-pointers and defending doggedly, earning the four-year contract with which the Bucks rewarded the 3-and-D wing man. This season, however, has been a regression for Snell, who’s endured a prolonged shooting slump and has struggled to be a difference-maker.
In Game 1, Snell missed all three of his three-point attempts and finished with just two points in 33 minutes. He doesn’t give Milwaukee anything else on offense, and late in the game appeared tentative and apprehensive, passing up open looks from outside and fumbling vital rebounds on the defensive end. Snell’s confidence is fragile, and if he’s so rattled that he’s hurting the team like he did Sunday, he’s essentially unplayable.
4. Something I knew
Boston was the NBA’s best free-throw shooting team during the regular season (88.9 percent) and the league’s sixth-best three-point shooting squad. Without Irving, the Celtics’ newly remade offense lacked playmaking and an elite scorer, which would seem to help Milwaukee’s struggling defense get stops.
Well, not when you allow them to play to their strengths. The Bucks committed 31 personal fouls (to Boston’s 21), enabling the Celtics to hit 24 of 27 free throws (a true-to-form 88.9 percent). Milwaukee, with one of the league’s worst three-point defenses, also let Boston connect on 11 of 26 threes (42.3 percent). With no Irving and a makeshift offense, the Celtics gladly accepted free trips to the line and punished Bucks fouls. Foul trouble also kept Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe – both of whom ultimately fouled out – from making their full impact.
5. Something I’m watching more closely
Maybe it was just nerves, but the Bucks committed eight turnovers in the first quarter, which by the end of the period had them trailing 29-17. Bledsoe was sloppy, Antetokounmpo was overzealous and other players didn’t handle the ball with enough care and purpose. But Milwaukee cleaned up its act in the second quarter, outscoring the Celtics by 15 and leading 47-44 at halftime. The Bucks had only 12 more turnovers from the second quarter through overtime.
Milwaukee did not commit 20 turnovers in any of its first 81 games this season, but has had 20 in each of its last two games. Especially in the postseason, when games usually slow down and possessions are at a premium, the Bucks – who are now fully healthy, with an abundance of ball-handlers – have to be cleaner, smarter and more efficient.
Game 2 is at 7 p.m. in Boston (TNT).
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.