MILWAUKEE – All the ingredients were there for the Milwaukee Bucks, down 0-2 to the Boston Celtics, to claw their way back into the teams’ first-round Eastern Conference series.
A hungry, boisterous Friday night crowd at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
A somewhat cranky Bucks squad, unhappy both with the two performances they gave in Boston and with the heat that came their way since.
A couple essential members of the Milwaukee rotation – point guard Eric Bledsoe and forward Jabari Parker – who, with bold talk, put themselves squarely under the bright and rather, hot put-up-or-shut-up spotlight.
And of course, Thon Maker.
It’s an NBA cliché by now that role players and reserves are most likely to help their teams in the playoffs at home rather than on the road. It’s all about comfort zones, intimidation factors and other elements that either soothe or fray a young or fringe player’s nerves.
Well, Maker was a poster guy for that in the Bucks’ 116-92 victory over the Celtics. He scored 14 points, hit three of his four 3-point attempts, grabbed five rebounds and blocked five shots in 24-plus impactful minutes off the bench. Compare that to Maker’s DNP-CD in Game 1 and his lone scoreless minute in Game 2, both held on the parquet at Boston’s TD Garden.
Maker and, for that matter, backup Bucks guard Matthew Dellavedova contributed mightily, the former at both ends, the latter defensively as he dogged Boston ball handlers for 94 feet. They brought energy, tenacity and determination that somehow made it into neither their carry-on bags or checked luggage for the initial trip to New England.
“They both came ready to play,” Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo said, “and checked into the game and set an example for the team. And everybody else followed.”
Maker, the 7-foot-1 second-year project from the South Sudan, got minutes in relief of big man Tyler Zeller, who started because of John Henson’s aching back. Dellavedova was in on a need basis, dictated by the damage being done through two games by Boston point guard Terry Rozier.
Neither of them had done much this season to either crow about or suggest helpful playoff contributions. Dellavedova, hobbled by tendinitis and an ankle sprain, played in only 38 games and dipped from 7.6 points per game in 2016-17 to 4.3 this season.
Maker regressed more on merit. After starting 34 games as a rookie, he was called on to do so just 12 times this season. His playing time went up from 9.9 to 16.7 minutes but his production backslid from 14.5 points and 7.3 rebounds pro-rated to 36 minutes to 10.4 and 6.5.
In short, Maker did little to justify mentor Kevin Garnett’s bold prediction at the season’s onset that the lanky defender with the pterodactyl wingspan one day would be named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. Most Disappointing Sophomore was more like it.
None of which mattered a bit Friday.
“Sometimes with guys that don’t do it every night,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said, “you’re more fearful of what they’re capable of than what their averages are. That was the case tonight.”
One thing about the playoffs is, a big game or even a game-turning moment can wash away a regular season’s worth of heartbreak or ineffectiveness. Maker was feeling amped before the series even began, but it wasn’t until the scene shifted to Milwaukee that he showed it.
“Playoffs just really get me hyped,” Maker said after his dynamic, rim-denying, plus-23 effort. “The crowd, even if it’s an away crowd, just to hear that noise, you just get motivated. You just feel like you have to leave everything on the floor.
“It’s the end of the season. There’s teams sitting at home watching us, and I do not want to be those guys. So I got to find a way to get out there and give everything I got. I have nothing to lose, like I said. I really love this game, and the playoffs are the biggest stage. So I gotta find a way to impact the game.”
To put Maker’s shots and swats in context, he had six games all season before Friday in which he played as many minutes. Two in which he scored more points. One in which he posted a better plus/minus rating. And none in which he blocked so many shots. Four of his five blocks Friday came in the first quarter.
“Thon for me is like a little brother,” Antetokounmpo said. “We had a conversation two weeks ago and I told him he has to bring that killer mentality back.”
Maker, you might recall, played well at a similar point last postseason, scoring 11 points in Milwaukee’s 104-77 Game 3 blowout of the Raptors at home. That, too, was a spirited game, one that put the Bucks up 2-1 in the series and looked like a tipping point ... until Toronto ran off three consecutive victories.
The challenge to the Bucks now is even greater. Barely 36 hours after fending off, decisively, a potential 0-3 hole, they will need to do it all again on Sunday (1 ET, ABC).
That means Khris Middleton, who topped Milwaukee in points (23), rebounds (eight) and assists (seven), leading the way again. With Antetokounmpo bedeviling Boston’s defense and maybe avoiding the foul trouble that limited his playing time to 27:21.
It means Bledsoe, with 17 points and four assists, staying on the right side of his matchup with Rozier, the Celtics point guard he had dissed with a “Who’s that?” remark after Game 2. It means Parker backing up his grumbles about short minutes by contributing something akin to the 17 points with five boards, two assists and two blocks he had in 30:13 Friday.
Parker, a restricted free agent this summer whose relationship with Bucks management seems more than a little strained, declined to talk with reporters afterward. That instantly did his points-to-comments ratio some good.
And then, if Milwaukee gets all that or something close to it in Game 4, it will hope that someone, anyone, can offer the boosts Dellavedova and Maker brought in this one.
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