MILWAUKEE — Every member of the Boston Celtics inside Fiserv Forum on Saturday afternoon was incredulous.
With the clock ticking down and the Celtics training by three, Boston’s Jaylen Brown handed the ball off to Marcus Smart on the perimeter. Immediately, Smart attempted to get his shot off with Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday giving him no space at all. The whistle blew right away as Holiday’s arm whacked across Smart’s.
However, much to the delight of the majority of the 17,736 in attendance and the chagrin of everyone in the Celtics traveling party, the foul was called on the floor — a rip-through — instead of a three-shot foul. Smart made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second to give Boston another chance but none of the three putbacks went in, giving Milwaukee the 103-101 win and the 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Boston coach Ime Udoka said flat out that he felt the call was missed.
“It was a foul. It was a foul. He caught the ball, he’s turning into a shot,” Udoka said advocating for a shooting foul rather than the call on the floor. “Both feet set. You can’t say that’s a sweep. You’re going into a shot. That’s a poor call. Poor no-call.”
When asked what explanation he was given, Udoka said he was told Smart was sweeping his arms.
“I saw it in person but I also saw it on the film that I just went and looked at,” Udoka said. “It’s a shot. He’s going into a shot. He got fouled on the way up. Bad missed call.”
When asked about the call postgame, Smart asked every reporter in the room what their opinion was. After getting no real response, Smart said, “I mean, that’s all I gotta say.”
Smart said in that time and situation, it made no sense for him to try the rip through move knowing the Celtics needed to play for the tie.
“You need three [points] with 4.6 seconds, they know we need three,” Smart said. “We know they are gonna foul. It’s not like he got me when it was down low. I was already in my shooting motion. I thought it was gonna be 3 free throws, they said it wasn’t.”
Instead, Smart made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second to try and give the Celtics a chance. Smart, Robert Williams III and Al Horford all got attempts up but none fell. Horford’s second attempt, which did go through the basket and sent some of the Celtics bench into celebration, was a tenth of a second after the clock expired.
“Smart timed it perfectly,” Horford said. “Was able to get the rebound. At that point it was just hanging around the rim. We felt like we had some good looks there. I think tipped it once, missed it, the second time I knew I was slightly off so I wasn’t very optimistic. I was late. But we gave ourselves a chance there to tie it and send it to overtime.”
Smart said he made the call to attempt the missed free throw on his own and let his teammates know it was coming but indicated there may have been another missed call as his teammates were trying to get shots up at the end.
“It was perfect. I missed it perfectly,” Smart said. “Nobody was ready. Our guys were. I got it. [Milwaukee Bucks forward Bobby Portis] pulls my shoulder which throws me off. But I got a good look. I got it on the rim. Like Al said, we had a few chances but it didn’t work out for us.”
Boston trailed by as many as 13 points in the fourth quarter before storming back to take the lead, 100-99, on a pair of Jaylen Brown free throws with 1:49 to play. Milwaukee couldn’t answer on their ensuing possession and Boston had two chances to push the lead to four but Smart and Brown each missed 3-pointers.
On the next time down, Giannis Antetokounmpo hit a layup to give the Bucks the lead. After another stop, Holiday hit a bucket in the lane to push the lead to 103-100 with 11.2 to go. Udoka drew up a play coming out of the timeout that could have gotten a quick two, but that was foiled by the Bucks.
“Smart threw it to me in the corner,” Brown said. “Jrue Holiday was on me. He did a good job of pressuring me. I was trying to get to my spot and he took it away so I flipped it back to Smart.”
That’s when Brown reflected on the call at the end of the game.
“You gotta understand time and score,” he added. “We’re down three. We’re looking to get one up. I thought it was pretty obvious. All year they’ve been calling that on the floor which we understand. But time and score, I think they missed one.”
Holiday said he thought Smart was still facing the sidelines when the contact occurred. “That’s not a shooting motion,” Holiday said. “It wasn’t facing the rim.”
Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said the plan was not for the Bucks to foul up three in that situation, but they were fortunate that the call was just for two free throws instead of three.
There were a few times where Udoka thought about using his challenge before deciding to go with it on a block/charge call that went against Grant Williams with 5:57 in the fourth quarter. Without that challenge, Udoka couldn’t ask officials to look to see if Smart was in the shooting motion in the late game-deciding possession.
“You’d like to save it more towards the end,” Udoka said. “But their explanation is if they don’t fall down, they don’t call it. So I’ll teach my guys to flop more.”
Despite the questionable call at the end of the game, the Celtics were the more aggressive team in the final 16:30 of the game. In that stretch, Boston shot 17 free throws compared to zero for Milwaukee. Still, there was plenty of physical play by both teams throughout the contest.
But there were times when Udoka saw his team complaining too much and not getting back on defense. After Williams complained following a no-call on one end, Pat Connaughton hit a 3-pointer on the other drawing an angry timeout from Udoka.
“As much as they’re gonna let you play, you gotta play through that and have our composure,” Udoka said. “If they are gonna call it that way consistently that way on both ends, you gotta play through it and not bitch about calls.”
Boston shot poorly throughout the game, failing to top 35% shooting in each of the first three quarters before hitting 11-of-22 shots in the fourth — with three of those coming on putback attempts late. Brown and Horford combined to shoot 17-of-33 for 49 points but the Celtics had an off night from Jayson Tatum at the worst time. He finished with 10 points, on 4-of-19 shooting and he missed all six of his 3-point attempts.
As he did in Game 2, Tatum entered the news conference with a black wrap around his left hand and wrist. He grabbed at the wrist after bracing himself on a dunk in the second quarter when he was fouled by Antetokounmpo. He said the wrist was bothering him after that play but “it was something I’ve been dealing with for probably like two months now.” He said it wasn’t anything that he hasn’t had to deal with in the past.
Tatum said he originally injured it on a fall two months ago and that while rest would’ve done him well, it’s sensitive at times because it continues to get hit. He insists the injury is healed, however.
Tatum was also frustrated with the team’s performance overall, and it was a game he felt like they should’ve won.
“I mean they played well. Gotta give them credit,” Tatum said. “But I think the frustrating part is all things considered, we still had opportunities and came back and gave ourselves a chance to win the game. And we didn’t. And that’s tough.”
ESPN’s Jamal Collier contributed to this story.