BOSTON — Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo had made two unsuccessful attempts to drive past Boston Celtics forward Grant Williams on a possession midway through the fourth quarter on Sunday, so Antetokounmpo had to get creative.
He faked a shot to his left and then turned his body right, gathering his feet to throw the ball off the backboard to himself and slam home a two-handed dunk. His alley-oop to himself silenced the Boston crowd and put an exclamation point on a dominant performance by Milwaukee in a 101-89 victory in Sunday’s Eastern Conference semifinal series opener.
“I had the ball and I was like, ‘Oh crap, I’m going to get stuck,'” Antetokounmpo said after the game. “I threw it to the backboard and I’m lucky enough God blessed me with the ability to be able to jump and go get it again.”
Antetokounmpo’s dunk was a microcosm of the way Game 1 played out.
The Celtics made things tough for Antetokounmpo for the entire game — holding him to 9-of-25 shooting with five turnovers — but ultimately, he was too much for Boston to contain. Antetokounmpo recorded his second career playoff triple-double, finishing with 24 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists.
It was the third-worst shooting performance of his playoff career, but Antetokounmpo still managed to become the first player in franchise history with multiple career playoff triple-doubles.
“They were showing help, being physical,” Antetokounmpo said of the Celtics’ defense. “Bringing the help. Being active. They were really good.”
However, despite his poor shooting performance, Antetokounmpo carried the Bucks offense. He accounted for 55 of Milwaukee’s points in part by getting his teammates open shots. The Bucks shot 12-of-18 (7-of-12 from 3) off of his passes, and 14 of those looks were uncontested, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
With Milwaukee missing forward Khris Middleton, and with guard Jrue Holiday in some early foul trouble, Antetokounmpo played nearly the entire first half, coming out of the game for an extended stretch for the first time in the third quarter after getting himself into foul trouble. The Bucks outscored the Celtics by 23 with Antetokounmpo on the floor and were minus-11 when he was off.
“The patience, keep working, keep working, keep reading the defense,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said about Antetokounmpo’s performance. “The spacing around him has got to be great and we’ve got to give him outlets. He just keeps reading the game. Sometimes it’s scoring, sometimes it’s sharing it. He knows he’s got to do both.”
And although they routinely see Antetokounmpo pull off the spectacular, his alley-oop to himself in the fourth quarter left his teammates in awe.
“It’s elite,” Holiday said, shaking his head. “I can’t do that. I wouldn’t even think about trying it.”
Added Bucks forward Bobby Portis: “Not too many words to be said, to be honest.”
The Celtics touted the No. 1 defense in the league during the regular season and got through the first round by smothering Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. But after finishing the regular season No. 14 in the NBA in defensive efficiency, the Bucks have raised their defensive intensity. They have the best defensive rating in the postseason so far.
Milwaukee held the Celtics to 33.3% shooting overall and kept them out of the paint, forcing Boston to try and win the game with contested jumpers. The Celtics were just 3-for-20 when Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez contested their shots, and Holiday held Boston to just 4-for-13 when he was the primary defender, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“We’re playing hard defensively. I think we realized in order for us to be in the game, in order for us to win games, we’ve got to guard,” Antetokounmpo said. “Offensively, obviously one of our best scorers [Middleton] is not out there, so we know that we’ve got to guard, and offensively we’re going to figure it out.”
“At the end of the day, if we don’t guard, we don’t have a chance of being in the game. I think after Game 2 [against the Bulls in the first round] we were like, we got to start guarding. We got to take that pride defensively.”
Game 2 is Tuesday night in Boston.