On Friday night, the Bucks won in a wild romp, routing the Celtics to inject life into their-first round playoff series and exhilarate their fan base. On Sunday afternoon, Milwaukee won again at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, but in an entirely different way – blowing a 20-point second-half lead that (probably) prompted crusty diehards to mutter "same old Bucks," taking Boston’s best punch but staying in the fight and, ultimately, prevailing for a nerve-wracking, character-building and satisfying victory, 104-102, that was just as fun as Friday but even more important.
Game 3 showed the Bucks could compete in the series. Game 4 showed they could win it.
It was exciting to watch Milwaukee build up another large lead against Boston on Sunday, but it was actually more encouraging to see how the team responded after the Celtics came back late in the game. Far too many times, we’ve seen this and other Bucks teams collapse when challenged in similar situations. Instead, the Bucks remained resilient, played strong at both ends and were rewarded with their freakish superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, tipping in the go-ahead basket to save the day.
"One of the most important things that we can carry from this game moving forward is that we stayed disciplined and we trusted one another," Antetokounmpo said.
Game 4 featured many of the same positive elements of Game 3. Once again, Malcolm Brogdon and Tyler Zeller were inserted into the starting lineup. Once again, Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton led the way on offense, with a reinvigorated Jabari Parker providing big scoring off the bench. Backup point guard and civic folk hero Matthew Dellavedova hit another buzzer-beating basket (this time a stolen inbound pass that he scooped in for a layup at the end of the first quarter to send the crowd into hysteria) and the Bucks went into halftime with another double-digit lead.
When Milwaukee tries, it can make the cavernous Bradley Center rock.
When the Bucks try, they can win playoff basketball games.
Keep it up. — Jimmy Carlton (@jimmycarlton88) April 22, 2018
Midway through the third quarter, Milwaukee was up, 65-45, and the Bradley Center crowd was feeling fine. But then Boston began playing more physically and exploiting a Bucks defense that wasn’t as alert as in the first half. Parker, who’d put forth easily his best defensive performance in the first half (five rebounds, three blocks and two steals to go with 12 points), was less attentive, which helped Celtics guard Jaylen Brown get open and in a groove, as he finished with 34 points.
By the end of the third quarter, the Bucks were up just 75-67, and with less than six minutes to play in the game, the lead was down to two points. From that point on, the game was a thrilling, nail-biting, back-and-forth, action-packed affair.
With 5:27 remaining, Eric Bledsoe – feuding with Terry Rozier since Game 2 – drew a three-point shooting foul on his counterpart, smiling widely, lifting his arms and exhorting the crowd to cheer. On the Celtics’ next possession, after Bledsoe made two of three free throws to put Milwaukee up, 90-85, Marcus Morris – without a doubt, public enemy No. 1 in Milwaukee and antagonist of Middleton – drove the lane, but was blocked defiantly by Thon Maker.
The second-year center, who’d played just one minute the first two games before exploding as a difference-maker in Game 3, was huge again, with eight points and five blocks, earning ovations every time his name was announced.
"Thon is playing extremely assertive," head coach Joe Prunty said. "The blocked shots are going to stand out because that's something somebody can see on the stat sheet. But he has a presence out there. They know where he is."
After trading points the next two possessions, Antetokounmpo reminded everyone why he’s the Greek Freak, by turning the corner, stretching out impossibly and dunking absurdly on – mercifully, this time not Aron Baynes – Al Horford to put Milwaukee up, 94-87.
Over the next two minutes – despite the Bucks playing inspired, intelligent, dogged defense, led by the animated Maker – the Celtics kept making big plays. After Brown and Jayson Tatum hit tough, contested shots, Boston took a 100-99 lead, Prunty called timeout and the Bradley Center was filled with an all-too-familiar sense of foreboding.
Following a couple of empty possessions, with less than a minute left, Bledsoe found an open Brogdon in the right corner, and the President sank a dead-eye three-pointer to put Milwaukee up, 102-100. But a Maker foul at the other end put Horford on the line, and the veteran calmly sank both shots to tie the game with 30 seconds to play.
On the ensuing possession, the Bucks worked the clock down to six seconds before Brogdon drove to the basket. The second-year guard missed the layup, but Antetokounmpo wrestled inside position from Brown, leapt up and tipped the ball in for the go-ahead basket with 5.1 seconds remaining. When Morris’ 14-foot jumper – defended by Middleton – rimmed out at the buzzer, the Bucks had won, 104-102, evened the series and ensured at least one game at the Bradley Center.
"Another hard-fought game, physical game," Prunty said. "Found a way to close it out. They made a good run in the third, carried over to the fourth and, like I said, we found a way to close it out. Two to two, headed to Boston."
Once again, Antetokounmpo and Middleton led the way on offense, combining for 50 points on 20-of-34 shooting. Middleton was steady and efficient all game, while Antetokounmpo provided the exclamation-point highlight plays. Parker finished with 16 points, while Brogdon added 10.
For the second straight game, the active defense of Maker and Dellavedova made a huge difference. The pesky Dellavedova again harassed Rozier with full-court pressure, while the shot-swatting Maker protected the rim.
"At the end of the day in the playoffs, we know we have the best player on the floor, so we rely on him and he comes through." – Malcolm Brogdon on Giannis Antetokounmpo
With the series tied at 2-2, the Bucks will travel to Boston for Game 5 on Tuesday at 6 p.m. at TD Garden (NBA TV).
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.