BOSTON — The Milwaukee Bucks understand the math. They know three points are greater than two. In fact, over the first seven games of the season, they built their offense around that premise with everyone on the court encouraged to let shots fly from beyond the arc.
That math problem was Milwaukee’s undoing on Thursday night, though, as the Bucks got a taste of their own medicine. The Boston Celtics set franchise records with 24 3-pointers on 55 attempts on the way to a 117-113 victory at TD Garden. The loss knocked Milwaukee from the ranks of the unbeaten and reinforced the narrative that the Celtics, even without injured wing Jaylen Brown, are the team to beat in the East.
Even so, the Bucks don’t feel like they’re far behind.
“Definitely have a lot of confidence, we still think we are one of the best teams,” Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “Tonight we didn’t have an A or B game, probably a C game, but we were still close to winning the game in Boston; one of the best teams in the East. We are still going to believe in ourselves, going to continue to get better.”
As unbalanced as the equation was with the Bucks scoring 62 points in the paint and going just 9-of-29 from long range, Milwaukee had plenty of chances to tie or win the game. They trailed by as many as 15 heading into the fourth quarter but used a 12-0 run to open the period and make things competitive again.
After scorching the nets all night, the Celtics went cold, going without a field goal for the final 3:48. With 1:45 remaining, the Bucks got within two points on a layup by Malcolm Brogdon.
Successive stops gave the Bucks multiple chances to even the score, all of which they squandered. Khris Middleton, who scored eight of his 16 points in the fourth quarter after struggling for much of the night, battled Kyrie Irving on the baseline and fell out of bounds. Then after another stop, Antetokounmpo attacked in transition and missed a reverse layup long.
With 14.8 seconds left and the Bucks still trailing 113-111, Antetokounmpo stripped Jayson Tatum on an inbound and Eric Bledsoe came up with the ball. He was immediately fouled by Tatum, giving him a chance to tie the game at the line with 12.8 second on the clock.
A villain at TD Garden following his playoff spat with Terry Rozier last spring, Bledsoe was lustily booed and then cheered as he missed the first of the two free throws.
“Sometimes we’ve got to win games like this,” said Bledsoe, who finished with 13 points and seven assists. “We had a chance. I missed one of two free throws. … I got to do a better job of playing a little bit better down the stretch.”
He made the second and Irving responded by making two free throws at the other end. Needing a 3-pointer to tie, the Bucks decided to abandon the shot they’ve loved all season.
With no timeout call from the bench, Bledsoe drove the length of the court and got right to the rim, but his layup attempt popped off the iron. The Bucks kept control as the rebound went out off Boston and Budenholzer decided to spend the first of his two remaining timeouts.
Following a timeout, the Bucks still went inside, choosing to lob the ball to Antetokounmpo, who was fouled.
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“He did a great job executing, the guys did a great job executing. We like that look,” Budenholzer said of Bledsoe’s coast-to-coast drive before going on to explain the lob to Antetokounmpo.
“There were a couple options. I think the guys read the situation and made a good decision. A lot of time still. He almost had an and-1. It didn’t quite work out.”
Antetokounmpo went 1-of-2 at the line and Al Horford responded by pushing the margin to four at the other end by burying both his free throws, effectively ending the game. Horford played a big role for the Celtics throughout the night, spacing the floor with his shooting on the way to 18 points while also dishing out a game-high eight assists.
Despite the comeback, the math that went against the Bucks the whole night eventually bore out as expected.
The equation flipped against Milwaukee almost from the jump. While the Bucks continued their trend of predominantly choosing to drop their center on pick-and-rolls, the Celtics eagerly lapped up the open pick-and-pop 3-pointers they were offered. Combine that with a level of scrambling and over-helping not yet seen under Budenholzer and Celtics went 12-of-28 from 3-point range in the first half alone.
“They are playing a lot of middle pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop bigs, so they got a ton of them from there and couple of them in scramble situations,” Budenholzer said. “Then Kyrie creates lots of 3s in random situations. They got a lot of different ways that they create the 3s, but the one that stood out the most was the middle pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop.”
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The Bucks ultimately adjusted their coverage in the fourth quarter, doubling the ball-handler more in pick-and-roll situations. Boston still made some open three-pointers against that look, but it wasn’t at the level of the previous periods. Part of that can be attributed to the Bucks and part of it to luck, as a few open looks refused to fall.
Boston’s early barrage of 3-pointers didn’t immediately sink the Bucks. On the back of Antetokounmpo, who led the team with 33 points and 11 rebounds, Milwaukee relentlessly attacked the rim and chalked up 40 points in the paint before halftime. Boston was content to make that trade, choosing to cut off kick-out opportunities and thus limited the Bucks — who have averaged 40-plus 3-point attempts per game this season — to 14 looks from outside in the first half.
It didn’t help that the Bucks looked more reticent to shoot than they have all season.
“At times I thought we weren’t as confident letting it fly like we have been,” Budenholzer said. “We maybe passed up a couple shots. Then I think we got to a better place where we were shooting it. I think we had 62 points in the paint. … We love 3s, but we love finishing in the paint, too.”
The Bucks made just three in the first-half but somehow kept things close. They only trailed 55-53 at the half.
Then the dam broke.
Irving, who finished with 28 points and six 3-pointers, splashed a trio of treys to open the third quarter, then assisted on one by Tatum. Two minutes into the period, the Celtics had opened up an 11-point lead and wrested control of the game that they would never relinquish, despite giving the Bucks opportunities to regain the lead.
The Bucks battled back and fought the math, but the math — and the Celtics — won. It’s a hard experience to go through at any point, but the Bucks would rather learn lessons in November than later down the road.
“It’s just one game,” Middleton said when asked what he takes from early-season, measuring-stick games like Thursday’s. “It’s too early, it’s not even 10 games into the season. … It’s one game out of 82; it’s not a playoff game right now.”
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