MILWAUKEE — The Boston Celtics made everything difficult offensively for Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo through the first two games of this series, but Antetokounmpo broke through with a dominant performance in Game 3, scoring 42 points to lead the Bucks to a 103-101 victory Saturday.
An extra off-day between Games 2 and 3 gave Antetokounmpo more time to stew on his performance from Milwaukee’s most recent loss — which included going 2-for-12 shooting in the first half. A team source described Antetokounmpo’s demeanor in practice in the days leading up to Game 3 as “angry” to ESPN because he believed he could play better.
“He was absolutely ready for this game,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said. “I think he was ready for this game right after Game 2.”
Antetokounmpo bounced back from a poor shooting night in Game 2 to finish 16 of 30 (53%) on Saturday, adding 12 rebounds, 8 assists and 2 blocks to help the Bucks take a 2-1 series advantage.
The Celtics had been keeping him off-balanced by throwing a mix of talented, physical defenders to guard him on each possession, but Antetokounmpo found some answers Saturday. He scored against five different primary defenders, including 14 points against Celtics forward Al Horford, and scored 26 points in the paint, his most in a playoff game this season, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.
And when Antetokounmpo drove to the basket, the Celtics had no answer. He scored 17 points when shooting after his own drives, according to Second Spectrum, his most in a game this season.
“I just tried to read whatever is in front of me, play to my strengths as much as possible,” Antetokounmpo said after the game. “I know what my strengths are. Sometimes I’ll make the right play, sometimes I’ll make the wrong play, but as long as I play within my strengths, I’m going to be in a good place.”
He added: “At the end of the day, I’m not going to change something that’s been working for me. I live or die with it. … Now, I’ve got to be smarter with it and I’ve got to pick and choose the time. I feel sometimes I might rush stuff. I have to slow down and take my time and get to my spots.”
But Antetokounmpo also found a variety of ways to punish the Celtics on Saturday.
He did so in transition; the Bucks outscored the Celtics 21-11 in fast-break points and Antetokounmpo scored 11 points on 3-of-6 field goals (5-for-5 free throws). He did so by getting his teammates involved — Milwaukee shot 8-of-17 for 19 points off a pass from Antetokounmpo. And he disrupted Boston defensively, holding the Celtics to just 3-of-10 shooting whenever he was the primary defender.
“He does a great job of that, reading what they’re giving him or what they’re trying to take away, whatever it is,” Lopez said. “They throw a lot of different guys at him, a lot of different looks and everything like that. He does a great job of being smart, taking his time and either making a play for himself or someone else.”
The Bucks were pleased with their effort defensively following the first two games of this series, so they spent the days leading up to Game 3 focusing on how they could generate easier offense, especially for Antetokounmpo. The Celtics smothering defense contested just about everything for Antetokounmpo, making him work hard for each basket, so the Bucks wanted to get him the ball with room to score less-strenuous points.
Usually, the Bucks turn to forward Khris Middleton in such instances, running their offense through pick-and-rolls between Middleton and Antetokounmpo. However, with Middleton expected to miss the rest of the series with a sprained left MCL, Milwaukee utilized guard Jrue Holiday as Antetokounmpo’s pick-and-roll partner more frequently.
Antetokounmpo set 13 on-ball screens for Holiday that led to a direct action (shot, turnover, foul), their most in a game as teammates, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. It wasn’t very successful in Game 3 — averaging 0.39 point per direct pick, down from 1.05 points during the regular season — but it’s a look the Bucks want to have in their disposal to generate offense with Middleton sidelined.
“It feels pretty good,” Holiday, who scored 25 points on 11-of-30 shooting, said after the game. “Sometimes with us, they switch, but there were a lot of times where they didn’t. Coming off [the screen], getting to the paint, getting to the basket, I felt like with the ball in my hands, I can make those plays.
“I can make that shot or even kick out. Me and Giannis have done pick and roll plenty of times. In this series, I feel like it’s good to go to it, especially with Khris out. Down the stretch, it’s going to be us two.”
Holiday and Antetokounmpo each took 30 shots Saturday and helped close out Boston in crunch time with a basket from both in the game’s final minute to rally from a one-point deficit with 50 seconds remaining.
Milwaukee’s stars outdueled Boston’s and the Bucks have a series lead because of it. And because Antetokounmpo was determined to respond after an off night.
“He was very focused, mentally composed,” Lopez said about Antetokounmpo’s preparation this week. “Getting his work in when we’d come in for practice, watching a lot of film, just going over a lot of stuff. He was definitely prepared for tonight. That’s just Giannis.”