As the final buzzer sounded to conclude the Milwaukee Bucks’ strikingly dominant 116-92 win over the Boston Celtics in Game 3 on Friday night and the sellout crowd reprised its cherished "Bucks in six!" chant and confetti rained down on the court as giant inflatable Bango soared overhead, Thon Maker raised his arms in the air in triumph while Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker bro-hugged on the team’s exultant bench. Three players – prior to now, idle, ineffectual and indifferent, respectively, in the series – celebrating a much-needed team victory that they very much helped earn.
This was the game the Bucks had to win. After going down, 0-2 – and being embarrassed in Game 2 – Milwaukee had to have this one, Game 3, in front of their home fans, to deserve to hope to have a chance to get back into this first-round series. That they took care of business so impressively, so easily, so enjoyably, should not obscure that basic fact: Friday was essentially a must-win affair, and an occasion to play with all of the effort and any of the competence they possessed, if they really wanted to hang around the playoffs past Sunday.
Galvanized by a raucous crowd and electric atmosphere, the Bucks did that. From the opening tip, they played with a manic, frantic, desperate energy, which was good and necessary. They also played with a brazen bit of defiance, as though they’d been wronged by their own defeats; it was a feeling they didn’t really deserve, but it was great fun to watch.
Driving strong to the basket, hitting jumpers he’d previously been bricking and beating his chest fiercely, Bledsoe made 8 of 13 shots and scored 17 points with four assists and just one turnover. Active and engaged, Jabari Parker, who’d endured a difficult few days after a lackluster performance in Game 2 – public scrutiny of his aloofness, media speculation about his future – was noticeably digging in on defense and attacking on offense, finishing with 17 points, five rebounds and a ferocious put-back slam.
But it was Maker, who’d played all of one minute in the first two postseason contests but was thrust into action Friday because of starting center John Henson’s back injury, who truly changed the game. Looking finally like the agile, rangy, rim-protector Milwaukee saw in last year’s playoff series against the Toronto Raptors, but who’d been absent pretty much all of this season, Maker was an absolute delight to watch – and he was having an even better time playing.
In 24 brash and bouncy minutes, the second-year center was a hyperactive, trash-talking, shot-swatting nightmare for the Celtics, posting 14 points, five rebounds and five blocks, the latter of which doesn’t even do his interior presence justice. Maker exemplified the Bucks’ aggressive attitude and newfound physicality.
The rail-thin 7-footer bumped chests with Celtics, leapt up to snatch the ball out of the air when they took shots after the whistle that wouldn’t have counted (no easy buckets!) and glowered – somewhat menacingly, almost incredulously – at Boston players who dared even to enter the lane.
It was a terrific display of Maker’s unreserved personality and another glimpse of his tantalizing potential, his best game of the season and perhaps best in Milwaukee. Afterward both Celtics and Bucks players declared him the difference-Maker.
Bledsoe, Parker and Maker were huge Friday night, though the team’s top dogs also made their dependable, crucial impact. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 19 points, five rebounds and six assists, with foul trouble limiting him to 27 minutes and necessitating contributions from teammates.
Khris Middleton, who’s shooting 69 percent on three-pointers for the series, hit 10 of 17 shots (3 of 6 threes) and filled out the box score with 23 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Malcolm Brogdon and Tyler Zeller, inserted into the starting lineup for the first time, were quietly effective, while steady Tony Snell and spirited Matthew Dellavedova provided sparks off the bench.
Before the game, the Bucks held a pep rally outside the BMO Harris Bradley Center, which felt somewhat subdued – either because of the dreary weather or the team being down, 0-2, a best-of-seven series deficit from which Milwaukee has never come back to triumph. But inside the arena that is hosting its final basketball games, the environment was completely different, a lively, buzzing, anxious excitement.
The pregame spectacle featured the awesomely standard phantasmagoric light show and pyrotechnics; a blackout and melodramatic video montage; and the crowd, much of it wearing the distributed "Fear the Deer" T-shirts, holding their cell phones aloft, the Clutch Crew swaying back and forth.
Antetokounmpo’s introduction drew deafening cheers, matched only by a Dellavedova three-pointer just before halftime, the Greek Freak’s slam-dunk annhilation of Celtics center Aron Baynes in the third quarter and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was in attendance and announced as a new Bucks minority owner, being shown on the jumbotron.
The crowd kept up the noise all night, and the players fed off it. After the game ended, thousands of gleeful Milwaukee fans streamed out of the BMO Harris Bradley Center still chanting "Bucks in six! Bucks in six!" – an as-yet-unfulfilled and, at this point in the series, overly ambitious rallying cry, and a proudly emphatic, optimistic response to what they saw Friday night.
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.