BOSTON — Giannis Antetokounmpo got a taste of his own medicine: The NBA’s best player got sent home by a better, deeper and more balanced team.
The pivotal stop on the Bucks’ 2021 title path was a second-round Game 7 victory on the road against the Brooklyn Nets, an instant classic in which Kevin Durant scored 48 points but fell short in overtime against a deeper and healthier opponent. Antetokounmpo left the series calling Durant “the best player in the world” and proceeded to carry Milwaukee to its first championship in 50 years.
One year later, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks found themselves in the same spot — facing elimination in Game 7 on the road — but with inverted roles and a flipped script. Antetokounmpo spent the past two weeks solidifying his case as basketball’s brightest light beyond any doubt, often carrying the Bucks against the fierce and focused Celtics, led by Jayson Tatum, a rising superstar eyeing a first title of his own.
Like Durant last season, who was asked to do more without an injured Kyrie Irving and a limping James Harden, Antetokounmpo took on an almost comical burden against Boston with Khris Middleton sidelined by a hamstring injury. After scoring 42 points in Game 3, 40 in Game 5 and 44 in Game 6, Antetokounmpo scored or assisted on Milwaukee’s first 24 points in Game 7, serving as setup man, finisher and punisher.
Stuck without consistent scoring from his wings for the entire series, the two-time MVP unleashed an expanded arsenal of power drives, jump hooks and drop steps. When the Bucks lost a Game 7 in Boston to close the first round of the 2018 playoffs, a 23-year-old Antetokounmpo was limited to 22 points. Boston never found a reliable answer to this more mature and cerebral version of Antetokounmpo, though it tried swarming, flopping and everything in between.
Even as the Celtics pulled away by negating the rest of the Bucks with active on-ball defense and timely rotations, Antetokounmpo freed himself for a soaring alley-oop finish that brought gasps from the Boston crowd. He finished with 25 points, 20 rebounds and nine assists but showed signs of fatigue at the end of an exhausting and physical series that left him bloodied in Game 5.
“Legs heavy. Body heavy. Mind heavy. Everything was heavy,” Antetokounmpo said. “If we had Khris, it would probably be a different story.”
The Celtics’ collective effort proved to be more than enough in the end; they overcame a slow start with attentive ball movement and improved outside shooting, receiving a huge lift from Grant Williams. The third-year forward, who moved into the starting lineup in Game 4 following an injury to Robert Williams, scored a career-high 27 points and thwarted the Bucks’ inside-out defensive strategy with a career-high seven three-pointers.
“If that’s how they want to play it, I’ve worked on my shot enough to knock those [three-pointers] down,” Grant Williams said. “It was a matter of continuing to execute and get those open looks. We hadn’t put a full game together this series. We said, ‘Why not now?’ ”
To limit Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Milwaukee’s defense packed the paint and dared Boston’s tertiary players to shoot from outside. Williams was an unlikely hero, known more for his high-energy defense. During the regular season, he averaged 7.8 points, 10th most on the Celtics, and never took than 14 shots in a game before launching 22 attempts in the series-closing victory.
“[Williams] took more shots than anybody on the team,” Tatum said. “I think that’s a first. He took 18 threes. I told him not to get to used to that. We needed it. He came up big. In the playoffs, you need guys to be a star in their role. Grant won us a playoff game tonight — a Game 7.”
For much of the series, the Celtics’ shooters couldn’t get on track, but their nonstop perimeter barrage made the difference. Eight Boston players combined to make 22 three-pointers, while Milwaukee shot 4 for 33 from deep. The Celtics broke open the game with three three-pointers shortly after halftime, and Tatum finished with 23 points, six rebounds and eight assists in a strong follow to his Game 6 takeover.
“You rely on your big guys to do what they do every night, but those [role] guys can make or break a series,” Celtics Coach Ime Udoka said. “We don’t rely on one guy. That’s what makes us harder to guard.”
Meanwhile, the Celtics’ defense, which ranked first in the regular season and has ranked third in the playoffs, held the Bucks to their lowest postseason scoring output of Coach Mike Budenholzer’s four-year tenure. Middleton’s absence loomed large; he was Milwaukee’s second-leading scorer and a key late-game weapon in last year’s playoffs.
“It’s an age-old equation, a calculus of the NBA,” Budenholzer said, holding back tears at the end of an unsuccessful title defense. “You’ve got to have good players, you’ve got to be a little bit lucky, and you’ve got to be healthy. You need all three of those things to win and advance in the playoffs. I’ve heard it a million times. I’ve learned it over and over again. We weren’t as healthy as we’d like to be, but nobody cares.”
Boston ran away from Milwaukee as the second half unfolded, pushed along by a loud home crowd. Sunday’s setting was determined on the final night of the regular season, when Milwaukee rested Antetokounmpo and other key players in a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That decision helped the Bucks avoid Durant’s Nets in the first round, but it ceded home-court advantage to the Celtics in the conference semifinals. By contrast, Boston played its star players in a season finale win over the Memphis Grizzlies, swept Brooklyn in the first round and made Milwaukee pay.
“This is why we played the season out,” Udoka said, “to have home-court advantage in a Game 7. If you believe in the basketball gods, those things matter. It’s good to be rewarded against a tough test.”
Having lived to tell the tale of scaling Mount Antetokounmpo, the Celtics are halfway to their first title since 2008 and their second in the past 36 years. Paul Pierce, a star forward on that 2008 championship team, celebrated the victory with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft from their courtside seats.
Boston will face the top-seeded Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, which open Tuesday in Miami. The rivals met at the same stage two years ago, when the Heat eliminated the Celtics from the bubble playoffs. These Celtics are older, wiser and more battle-tested than they were in 2020, and Tatum has honed his ability to close games.
With every right to feel confident going into the rematch, the TD Garden crowd serenaded the Celtics with chants of “Beat the Heat!”
“We get to play Miami again,” Tatum said. “Another extremely physical team. Really well coached. ... I’m excited to be back in this position and to try to get over this hump.”