BOSTON — The Milwaukee Bucks did to the Celtics what Boston did to the Brooklyn Nets, bullying them.
Rarely did the Celtics see open shots in their 101-89 loss in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. When they did, the Bucks dared a role player to beat them. Boston will need more fight from their stars than they showed in front of their home crowd on Sunday to unseat the defending champions, because 32% shooting and 33 points combined on 31 shots from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown is not going to cut it.
"There's a reason they were the champs last year — that level defensively that they have," said veteran Celtics big man Al Horford. "You've got to give them credit. They definitely were the better team tonight."
In 48 minutes of brutality, Milwaukee stole the home-court advantage it ceded to Boston in the final game of the regular season and halted the momentum the Celtics rode to a first-round sweep. Milwaukee is the favorite again. Boston can turn the tide, but Giannis Antetokounmpo has a game in hand and a blueprint to victory.
Antetokounmpo was far from dominant. The two-time MVP still collected his 24 points (9-25 FG, 0-2 3P, 6-11 FT), 13 rebounds and 12 assists, but this marked his least efficient scoring outing since early December. Great players find ways to win, and passing was Antetokounmpo's route. He drew multiple defenders, even when Boston did not need to double, and he repeatedly found teammates for clean looks all over the floor.
He also found himself off the glass for a dunk that dug Boston a 94-78 hole with 6:30 left in the game.
"I was like, 'Oh, crap, I'm going to get stuck,'" said Antetokounmpo. "Then, I threw it off the backboard, and I'm lucky enough that God blessed me with the ability to have a quick jump and go get it again."
The Bucks were without Khris Middleton, another Celtics killer and another wing to throw at Boston's stars. Milwaukee bought his left MCL sprain at least a couple more days of rest in what should be a long series.
"This is going to be a competitive series. This is going to be a tough series," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said, "and today was very much like that. That's what we expect from this series. A lot of respect for them."
In theory, Boston's athleticism should present problems for Milwaukee's three-big starting lineup, but the Bucks managed 33 minutes from Bobby Portis and 28 from Brook Lopez — a win, since Antetokounmpo picked up his fourth foul with 15:37 minutes remaining in a 6-point game. In practice, Antetokounmpo and Lopez shut off the rim, limiting the Celtics to a season-low 10 field goals inside the 3-point arc. Marcus Smart's reverse layup with 7:25 remaining in the third quarter was the last 2-point basket Boston made.
The Celtics attempted 50 3-pointers, made 18 and failed to score 90 points for the first time since Dec. 29.
"They're a really good team," said Tatum, "so it's not going to be easy, but we can't let them speed us up like that. We have to be stronger with the ball and more decisive ... and I think we will be next game."
Jrue Holiday hounded Tatum. Even when Tatum tried a backdoor cut midway through the fourth quarter, Holiday swiped it and drilled a 3-pointer on the other end to give the Bucks their largest lead, 92-75. Jevon Carter, who the Nets waived in February, provided another perimeter defensive spark. He finished a game-high +25 in 22 minutes off the bench, further helping Milwaukee survive minutes without their best player.
Antetokounmpo is the alpha in this series, even if Tatum outplayed Kevin Durant in Round 1. The Bucks superstar is a pantheon-level player in his prime, and he has not lost a home playoff game since 2020. The Celtics cannot afford Holiday outplaying Tatum and Brown, who were limited to one bucket apiece at the rim. They committed 10 of Boston's 18 turnovers, and the Bucks outscored the Celtics on the break, 28-8.
For as frustrating as Game 1 was for the Celtics, they projected a calmness in the postgame, if only because they held the Bucks to 101 points on 41% shooting and could not have played worse offensively.
"S***, we all had a rough night," said Tatum. "Nobody should hang their heads. We're in this together."
Horford even smiled when asked if Antetokounmpo had smoothed the edge they sharpened in Brooklyn.
"I think we still have our edge," the 35-year-old said. "He played a great game. I think we understand what we're up against. Obviously, he's a great player, and that's that — we're ready to move on for Tuesday."
They better be, because Game 2 amounts to a must-win against Antetokounmpo and his bully Bucks.
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