By David Ostrowsky
Boston based sports writer
Special to the Banner
You never would’ve known they were the defending NBA champs.
Heading into yesterday’s Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 1, the Milwaukee Bucks, with their second-best player, swingman Khris Middleton, possibly shelved for the entirety of the series with a Grade 2 MCL sprain, were significant underdogs to the white-hot Boston Celtics. Pundits nationwide were predicting the Celtics would breeze past a presumably one-dimensional Bucks team. At best, the Bucks would stretch the series to a Game 6 before bowing out. From coast to coast, there were more than a few talking heads predicting Boston in four while in Beantown, there was already talk about who would be an easier Eastern Conference Finals opponent — the Miami Heat or Philadelphia 76ers.
And yet it was the Bucks, behind their gritty defense and a solid, though not spectacular, performance from two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (24 points, 13 boards, 12 assists), who dusted off the front-running Celtics, 101-89, in front of a booming TD Garden in Boston yesterday afternoon.
“The activity everywhere was good,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer remarked about his team’s sterling defensive effort during his postgame presser. “Giannis, Brook [Lopez], Bobby [Portis], those guys really have to do both — they’ve got to play the paint, they’ve got to play the three-point line.
“Our guards gotta do the same thing, our guards gotta limit penetration, limit opportunities. I think defensively the edge, the focus, was appropriate.”
A shell-shocked Celtics team, one that has been the flavor of the month in the NBA this spring, had no answers for Milwaukee’s dominance on both ends of the floor.
“There’s a reason they were the champs last year — that level defensively that they have,” acknowledged Celtics veteran forward Al Horford. “You’ve got to give them credit. They definitely were the better team tonight.”
Indeed, the Bucks put forth a textbook team-wide effort, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, to clamp down on the heavily-favored Celtics, who had reeled off 26 wins over the final 32 games of the regular season before sweeping the star-studded Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. In addition to Antetokounmpo’s triple-double, the Bucks were bolstered by veterans Jrue Holiday (25 points) and Bobby Portis (15 points, 11 rebound) as they stole home-court advantage away from Boston.
But it was the Bucks’ suffocating defense that proved to be the difference-maker. With Antetokounmpo, arguably the best player on the planet, and fellow frontcourt mate Brook Lopez contesting Celtics’ shots, the hosts went a paltry 1-15 from the floor. For the first time since December 29, the Celtics didn’t eclipse 90 points as they shot just 33 percent while converting merely 10 2-point field goals. Boston’s two offensive kingpins, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the latter of whom is in the conversation to be Antetokounmpo’s successor as league MVP, were largely silenced as they combined for just 33 points.
“To have 89 points and lack of penetration and paint points is obviously alarming,” acknowledged a dejected Celtics’ head coach Ime Udoka in his postgame remarks. “We know who they are defensively, and I think their physicality more so than anything caught us off guard.”
Of course, this was only the first of what very well may be a seven-game series. The Bucks and Celtics split four regular season games and there are significant questions as to whether Middleton can return over the course of the next week. Surely, Boston’s dynamic duo of Brown and Tatum will look to bounce back from a dismal series-opening performance. And not to be forgotten, it was just three years ago that the Bucks got tripped up by the visiting Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals only to storm back to take the series in five.
“This is going to be a competitive series,” said Budenholzer, whose squad outclassed the Chicago Bulls in five games during the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in what turned out to be a very noncompetitive series. “This is going to be a tough series. And today was very much like that. That’s what we expect from this series. A lot of respect for them.”
Portis echoed his coach’s sentiment by saying, “both teams are physical. Both teams play hard. Both teams play defense. Both teams are long and tall.”
The Bucks’ pursuit of a second consecutive NBA Finals trophy resumes Tuesday night in Boston for what should be an electrifying Game 2.
David Ostrowsky is a former sports writer for the Metrowest Daily News and current contributing sports writer to the Atlanta Jewish Times. He is also the author of Pro Sports in 1993 (McFarland & Company). His next book, Roberto Alomar: The Complicated Life and Legacy of a Baseball Hall of Famer, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2024.