Those 22 foul shots, many of which came during a flurry just after halftime, tied Antetokounmpo’s career high and left Irving frustrated and dismayed.
“A guy comes down almost six times in a row and gets free throws,” Irving said. “What are you really going to do? It’s slowing the game down. He shot 22 on the game. It’s getting ridiculous at this point. It’s just slowing the [expletive] game down.”
Irving returned to the same theme multiple times, noting that the Celtics can do a better job of managing its reactions to calls and that they plan to “leave [the officials] alone” in Sunday’s Game 4. Yet it was clear he’s hoping for different officiating results as the second-round series unfolds.
“We know how many free throws [Antetokounmpo] has shot per game,” Irving said. "He’s a great player in our league. We know how many times he goes to the basket and gets contact. We also know how many times we go to the basket and get contact. It’s a playoff game. Guys are playing very aggressive. When you get into the bonus with eight minutes left in the third, it’s a shocker. It will put something in your mind where you don’t want to touch anyone.”
On the night, Milwaukee shot 36 free throws to Boston’s 32 — although many of the Celtics’ attempts came in the closing minutes. In Game 2, Antetokounmpo attempted 18 free throws and Milwaukee was plus-4 in free throw disparity. In Game 1, Milwaukee was plus-16 from the free throw line, but Boston won going away thanks to a hot shooting night.
Antetokounmpo ranked second in free throw attempts during the regular season, Milwaukee ranked 15th as a team, and Boston ranked 29th. It’s no great surprise, then, that the Bucks are getting more whistles.
But Antetokounmpo’s free throw attempts are merely a symptom, rather than the disease, for the Celtics. After brilliantly holding him in check with tight team defense in Game 1, the Celtics have been overrun by his powerful drives and dissected by his passes.
Indeed, Boston’s interior defense displayed numerous signs of cracking Friday. Twelve of Antetokounmpo’s 13 field goal attempts came in the paint, and he had eight assists — six of which were cashed in for three-pointers. Milwaukee shot 15 for 37 from deep, a strong indication that its vaunted inside-out attack, which ranked third during the regular season, is back humming.
“I don’t complain about officials,” Celtics Coach Brad Stevens said. “We have a lot of stuff we can do better. Every minute of every game against these guys is really hard. This is a heck of a team. Their physicality to the rim separated the game. The challenge of this team is the elite drivers who can get anywhere in one-on-one scenarios so you have to provide some help. And when you do, they pick you apart."
As Boston tries to regain control of its war with Antetokounmpo for control of the basket area, it must also find better rhythm, ball movement and steadiness on offense. The Bucks outscored the Celtics 52-24 in the paint, and the Celtics appeared overly content to settle for my-turn, your-turn jumpers. Remarkably, Milwaukee backup guard George Hill outscored Boston’s bench 21-16.
Irving, whose Game 2 performance was one of the worst of his postseason career, bounced back with a team-high 29 points, but he struggled to find his stroke from the midrange and committed four turnovers. He acknowledged that he needed to press the issue offensively more often to generate higher-percentage looks for himself and his teammates.
“I have to be more efficient, especially when I’m getting downhill on those switches," Irving said. "I have to punish those guys. It’s as simple as that. I have to do what I’m really great at: getting downhill, making plays, getting to the rim and dishing out. When I get a big on me and see those guys with slow feet, I need to go right at them.”
Earlier this season, Irving said he wasn’t worried about the inconsistent Celtics and that they would be “fine” because “I’m here.” After two straight losses, he seems to understand that it’s time to make good on those words.