After a close call, Milwaukee is back to its winning ways.
The whistle blew and the official’s arm pumped out a charge call, stunning and angering Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had just blown by two Boston Celtics and been undercut by Celtics guard Marcus Smart.
At that point with 1 minute 28 seconds left, the game hung in the balance, tied at 107. As the referees went to the replay monitors, they were presiding over a pivotal decision. If the call stood, it would be Antetokounmpo’s sixth and final foul. If overturned, it would be an and-one for Antetokounmpo, giving the Bucks the chance to go up by three and more importantly allowing the reigning MVP to stay in the game.
The replay showed Smart was just a bit late and still in the restricted area when Antetokounmpo started his ascent. Call overturned.
When play resumed, Antetokounmpo made his free throw, Khris Middleton ended an 0-for-6 slump with a three-pointer and the Bucks held on for a 119-112 victory as their season resumed Friday inside the NBA’s bubble at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
“They saw that he was moving while I was in the air and they overturned the call, so I was able to stay in the game and help my team,” Antetokounmpo said. “But either way, even if I was out of the game, I’d still try to find a way to cheer my team on, but thank God, they overturned the play and I was able to stay in the game.”
Smart, who led the Celtics with 23 points and was an omnipresent pest on defense all night, understandably saw the situation differently.
The excuse was I was late on the charge,” Smart said. “Quite frankly, I think we all know what that was about – Giannis’ sixth foul. They didn’t want to get him out. Just we’ll call that spade a spade and that’s just what it is.”
When informed of Smart’s comment, Antetokounmpo didn’t escalate the situation further. He’d already heard Smart say virtually the same thing when the two had an animated discussion on the court after the game.
Instead, Antetokounmpo demurred, saying that was Smart’s opinion. He then went on to praise Smart’s competitiveness, adding that he has no ill-will toward the Celtics guard.
When it comes to the game itself, Antetokounmpo put together an outstanding performance, racking up 36 points on 14 of 20 shooting, 15 rebounds and seven assists in just 32 minutes of action as he fought foul trouble all night. He scored 16 of Milwaukee’s 32 points in the fourth quarter, including eight in the final three minutes.
Middleton, who had 18 points and eight assists in 33 minutes, started hot, cooled off dramatically then stepped up when the Bucks needed him late. In addition to his clutch three-pointer, he helped seal the game with under 40 seconds to go when he bounced a sweet pass to Antetokounmpo in the pick-and-roll for an and-one.
“Those two guys, it’s just that they’re such good players, they make good reads and they see any opportunity that’s available and take advantage of it,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said, noting that they both played slightly more minutes than the team had planned.
Antetokounmpo almost didn’t have a chance to play the hero at the end. With 3 minutes, 19 seconds left, George Hill missed a three-pointer and Boston’s Daniel Theis corralled the rebound. Antetokounmpo lingered under the basket to defend Theis, picking up a cheap, silly foul — his fifth.
Less than a minute later, Antetokounmpo pushed Theis in the gut trying to fight around a screen, prompting a whistle from the officials. The whistle, though, was not accompanied by a call. Instead, they went to the monitors to review for a hostile act — presumably looking for a low blow.
“I went to review it and noticed that the normal defensive stance by Giannis – his hand touched the belt-line of Theis,” crew chief James Capers told pool reporter Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY, later noting that a foul could have been called but the contact was deemed incidental. “It was not in the groin area and therefore there was no illegal act on the play.”
That play along with the reversed charge call had the Bucks sweating it out on the sideline, hoping their star player would be able to stay in the game. Antetokounmpo knows he was fortunate with those two calls — even if they both ultimately went Milwaukee’s way — and that he’ll need to be better about managing his aggression and physicality in future games.
“I feel like I always do this,” Antetokounmpo said. “I know whenever I get excited and whenever I come back from the offseason or whenever I come back from a long break, I’m just excited. I’m just reaching all the time. I try to go for steals. I’m just aggressive.
“Sometimes, I get out of control, but that’s how I learn. That’s how I learn. So sometimes, you have to make mistakes to learn and today I learned from my mistakes.”
Antetokounmpo wasn’t the only one struggling to limit his fouls, though.
The Bucks, one of the most foul-averse teams in the league, sent the Celtics to the free-throw line 29 times in the first half. Those free throws combined with some shaky Bucks bench play and poor shooting allowed the Celtics to keep the game tight after falling in an early 15-point hole.
In the second half, though, the Bucks adjusted and put a greater emphasis on keeping the Celtics off the line. Over the final 24 minutes, Boston shot just five free throws.
“That was pretty much the only thing coach Bud brought up at halftime,” center Brook Lopez said. “It’s not in our team DNA, we don’t foul. We, unfortunately, put ourselves in that situation in the first half with those 29 fouls so I thought we did a great job resetting, getting back to who we are, who we were, and making them earn shots, take shots, make shots, without us fouling them.”
Still, the Celtics kept pushing, taking their first lead of the night late in the third quarter. Second-year star Jayson Tatum was just 2 of 18 for 5 points on the night — numbers Budenholzer largely credited to Wesley Matthews setting the tone against him on defense — but big nights from Smart and Jaylen Brown (22 points) led to a tied game heading into the fourth.
Milwaukee (54-12) opened the fourth on a 7-2 run before Lopez recorded blocks on back-to-back possessions, the second setting Antetokounmpo up for a breakaway dunk and coaxing a Celtics timeout. Those were just two of Lopez’s six blocks, marking the sixth time this season he’s had six or more blocks in a game. He also had 14 points and four rebounds in the victory.
“His job protecting the paint, protecting the rim was phenomenal,” Budenholzer said. “Like you said, I mean, tonight he’s credited with six and we feel like he alters and changes a lot more shots than just the ones he blocks. I think offense and players, they’re leery of driving the paint and what’s going to happen when they get there.”
The Bucks played Friday’s game without Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton, who both arrived late to the bubble after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this month. Marvin Williams also sat due to a left groin strain that he suffered in Milwaukee’s second scrimmage, an injury the team expects will be a short-term setback. Celtics all-star Kemba Walker had 16 points in 19 minutes but did not play the final quarter and a half while on a minutes restriction as he works back from a left knee injury.
High drama, critical plays, pivotal late-game calls, a bubbling beef between the Bucks and Celtics — on the first night back it seems like both teams are entertaining at a midseason level. One down, seven to go before the playoffs start.
“It was huge for us,” Lopez said of the win. “The scrimmages are what they were, I thought we did what we needed to prepare ourselves for these seeding games and I thought we had a great mindset coming out in the first few minutes. We fouled a lot in the first half but the right intent, the right heart, the right mindset was there.”