All season long, the Boston Celtics won games on the strength of their NBA-best defense while getting just enough clutch scoring from an attack led by All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. With a knee injury knocking Irving out for the playoffs, the C’s have had to lean even more heavily on the other end of the floor in a first-round matchup with Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks, who swung the pendulum in their direction at home in Wisconsin to even the series at two games apiece ahead of a pivotal Game 5 back in Boston on Tuesday night.
It was another defensive struggle, with both teams playing tight at times and misfiring from the field throughout, and it came down to the wire. This time, it was Boston that got the better of the run of play late — and the benefit of a controversial late-game call — to score a 92-87 win and take a 3-2 lead in the hotly contested series.
Horford led the way for Boston with a monster game in the middle, scoring 22 points on 7-for-15 shooting to go with 14 rebounds, three assists and two steals in 37-plus minutes, providing interior offense and back-line steel on a night where few players on either side were capable of consistently knocking down shots. Point guard Terry Rozier added 16 points with five assists and three rebounds, while wing Jaylen Brown chipped in 14 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in a team-high 38 minutes.
The Celtics got a significant boost, both emotionally and on the court, from Marcus Smart, who made his return to the lineup after more than a month on the shelf following surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb. The 24-year-old guard, one of the key pieces of Boston’s elite defensive unit this season, made his presence felt with a box-score-stuffing nine points, five rebounds, four assists, three blocks and a steal in a 25-minute reintroduction to the brand of postseason play that fits him like a glove — or, I guess, the protective splint he wore on that repaired right paw:
Thanks in part to Smart’s energy, the Celtics hit the gas midway through the second quarter, leading by as many as 16 points late in the opening half on a pair of free throws from rookie starter Semi Ojeleye, and equaling that advantage early in the third quarter after a 3-pointer by Rozier. But Milwaukee walked the Celtics down in the third quarter, fueled by an 11-points-in-four-minutes burst by reserve Shabazz Muhammad. After Boston parried to push the lead back to double digits, the Bucks returned the thrust early in the fourth behind two-way activity from Jabari Parker, who started beasting on the boards and made a personal 5-0 run to cut Boston’s lead to 72-68 with 8:45 to go in regulation.
Despite Milwaukee’s insistence, the Celtics found just enough offense to stay two or three scores ahead for the bulk of the fourth, carrying a lead into the closing two minutes … and that’s where an awful lot of the post-game focus will fall. Especially if you’re a Milwaukee fan.
With just under a minute and a half remaining and the Celtics holding onto an 84-79 lead, the Bucks sold out to try to shut off every Boston option in pursuit of a stop that would allow them to try to get back within one score. They got it, stringing out the possession until Horford had to heave a jumper that appeared to leave his hand well after the 24-second shot-clock buzzer went off … except no whistles blew, play continued, and Ojeleye batted an offensive rebound out to Rozier. Milwaukee fouled Rozier — wondering why exactly they should have had to do so all the while — and the Celtics retained possession.
What was perplexing the Bucks, and many of us watching at home: why didn’t the referees go to the video monitor at that point to review the previous Boston possession and see if the ball had left Horford’s hands in time? The answer: the play wasn’t reviewable, because the NBA’s list of replay review triggers doesn’t include the scenario, “We didn’t call a shot-clock violation and we have to go back and see if we should have.”
While refs can review a play on which “they were not reasonably certain whether or not a 24-second violation occurred,” they can only do so “on a made basket.” In this case, since Horford’s basket wasn’t a make, the condition wasn’t met. Hence, no review.
Here's the pool report from referee Ken Mauer on why there was no review on the Horford 24-second violation that was not called: pic.twitter.com/pd1oRFvVKy
— Matt Velazquez (@Matt_Velazquez) April 25, 2018
That, as you might expect, didn’t go over so hot.
Joe Prunty asked if he got an explanation on Horford's missed shot clock violation:
"Not a good enough one."
— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) April 25, 2018
Eric Bledsoe deflected a question about scuffle with Rozier, saying he’s just focused on the next game. I asked if he had heard any explanation about Al Horford’s shot with 1:16 left that looked like a shot-clock violation.
Thought it was “BS, point blank.” Didn’t abbreviate.
— Matt Velazquez (@Matt_Velazquez) April 25, 2018
For the record, Giannis said the refs informed them they can only review violations on makes or air-balls. “It’s the rules of the game,” he said. “You just have to play through it.”
— Ben Rohrbach (@brohrbach) April 25, 2018
The Celtics maintained possession and burned another full clock before Marcus Morris missed another 3-pointer. The Bucks rebounded the miss, finally getting the ball back with 48.8 left, about 27 seconds after it appeared they should have … which could be kind of a big deal in the final minute of the fourth quarter of a two-possession Game 5 in the NBA playoffs.
After Bucks swingman Khris Middleton missed a 3-pointer that would’ve cut the deficit to two points with 44 seconds to go, Boston once again looked to both kill clock and deliver a knockout punch. It didn’t go quite the way they drew it up, but they got what they were looking for, thanks largely to the hustle and tenacity of just-welcomed-back chaos agent Marcus Smart:
HOW, Marcus Smart?!?! pic.twitter.com/dZYqJsWx6t
— Yahoo Sports NBA (@YahooSportsNBA) April 25, 2018
The Bucks looked to have Smart right where they wanted him, as he slipped to the floor surrounded by swarming Milwaukee defenders. Somehow, though, Smart fought off Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe and Thon Maker, coming away with the ball and quickly flinging it from the deck into the waiting hands of Horford, who softly dropped the ball through the hoop to give the Celtics a seven-point lead with 28.1 ticks remaining.
Milwaukee held fast, getting a pair of 3-pointers from Middleton and a driving layup from Bledsoe to keep the heat on in the final half-minute. But Horford and Rozier made enough free throws down the stretch to keep the Bucks at bay, and come away with the win to draw within 48 minutes of the second round.
As frustrating as that no-call/no-review/whatever must be for the Bucks and their fans, it’d be reductive to pin the loss on it. Milwaukee shot 36.8 percent as a team on Tuesday and just 9-for-33 from long distance, with Middleton (23 points on 9-for-21 shooting, 3-for-6 from 3) leading the way. Antetokounmpo, a legitimate top-five MVP candidate and the Bucks’ single most devastating weapon, nearly notched a triple-double (16 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, two steals, two blocks) finished the game with only 10 field goal attempts, which — whether it stems from the coach or the player — represents a failure on the Bucks’ biggest game of the season.
Interim coach Joe Prunty also rode Muhammad’s hot hand too long, letting that third-quarter scoring burst induce him to leave the forward on the floor for a chunk of lackluster final-frame minutes. Prunty also left guard Malcolm Brogdon, one of Milwaukee’s best shooters and complementary playmakers, on the bench for the entire fourth quarter. There are other things you can point to besides the missed violation.
Still, that’s a pretty big one, and it’d be tough to blame the Bucks or their fans for getting their ire up over a missed whistle and such a frustrating reason for why it couldn’t be rectified in one of the biggest moments of the season. Celtics fans, for their part, will likely suggest that, after the finish of Game 4, the two sides are now even.
Boston’s a little more even than Milwaukee, though, needing only one more win to send the Bucks home for the summer and move on to a Round 2 matchup with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the rampaging Philadelphia 76ers, who punched their ticket to the Eastern Conference semifinals on Tuesday. After five games in which the home team has yet to taste defeat, the Bucks will hope the ball bounces back their way on Thursday night, and that they can hold serve back at BMO Harris Bradley Center in Game 6 to force a winner-take-all Game 7 back in Boston on Saturday.
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