MILWAUKEE – The Stonecutter’s Credo is best known around the NBA as the philosophy and culture of the San Antonio Spurs. The shorthand version – “pounding the rock” – has been embraced as the organization’s mantra across 23 seasons under coach Gregg Popovich.
The Spurs hold no monopoly, though, on that saying. It has been in play in both games so far of the Milwaukee-Boston Eastern Conference semifinal series at Fiserv Forum.
In the opener, the Bucks were relieved to still be within a possession at halftime after bringing none of their usual energy or intensity. Then the Celtics struck their pivotal blow, splitting the stone when they dominated the third quarter 36-21.
This time, in Game 2 Tuesday night at Fiserv Forum, the roles were reversed. Milwaukee dialed up everything, threw in a couple of adjustments and still couldn’t get much separation from Boston. Then wham! Again it happened in the third quarter, the Bucks delivering the blow this time, 39-18.
Fans watch scoreboards, the equivalent of counting each team’s whacks at the rock. Coaches watch everything else, which is why both Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer and Boston’s Brad Stevens felt Game 2 was won well before it broke open or officially was decided.
Stevens wasn’t fooled by the points. He saw how both teams were getting or denying them, and that was enough.
“I thought they dominated a lot in the first half and we were lucky to be down by four,” Stevens said. “They owned their space on both ends of the court better than we did. Our reaction to that was to settle on offense, and it led to some run outs. Then it just steamrolled us.”
Budenholzer had the all-full perspective. “That’s more what we’re accustomed to seeing," he said. “I liked our spirit, our activity and our competitiveness up and down the roster.”
Those things had been absent, or at least in short supply, when Milwaukee lost its homecourt edge in the series on Sunday. That’s why this one turned must-win so swiftly for the East’s No. 1 seed. Mathematically, the Bucks had wiggle room, but going to Boston down 0-2 raised the very real specter of not getting back to Fiserv at all.
The Bucks players claimed not to let that bad mojo in, focusing only on the frustration they felt in starting the series with such a clunker. True or not, they fixed what needed fixing.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, especially early, tried less often to bust through a wall of Boston defenders. Instead, he gave up the ball to wing Khris Middleton or let guard Eric Bledsoe probe the defense in a more aggressive performance.
Antetokounmpo’s teammates did their part in the symbiotic relationship by taking and making the good perimeter looks he earned them by drawing so much defensive attention. With so many dropping -- the Bucks were 20-of-47 on 3-pointers, outscoring Boston by 30 in that category -- there invariably was more space for Antetokounmpo to work.
"The Greek Freak" scored 29 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and shot more free throws (18) than the Celtics’ starting lineup combined (11). He wasn’t likely to get the scolding from his older brother Thanasis that he’d gotten in after the first game.
Middleton was the one who served notice to the Celtics that their jobs would be tougher, scoring 20 of his 28 points by halftime. Seven of the 3-pointers were his, on 10 tries. “We need to get better with that,” Boston’s Al Horford said.
Bledsoe forced action and got the better of his matchup with the Celtics’ Kyrie Irving, who, in 48 hours, went from a game worth bronzing to one in need of forgetting. Irving scored nine points on 4-of-18 shooting and shouldered a lot of the responsibility after.
“I tried to get to my spots but they were really sending guys over every time,” he said. “That’s a sign of respect and I just have to be more efficient in controlling the tempo of the game, the pace, where I want to get to on the floor and making reads better around that mid-range area.”
Irving said that Milwaukee’s “frantic” defensive style in Game 2 revved up Boston’s offensive decisions, and not in a good way. When rushed shots missed, the Bucks pounced for run-outs. The Celtics shot 39.5 percent after their 54 percent success in the opener.
Budenholzer unleashed that “frantic” defense by having his guys switch their assignments with each screen. That’s not how they played this season, but those who were around in 2017-18 did that sort of stuff under Jason Kidd. It kept the energy level high, even when a pair of Bucks occasionally ran into each other.
The Bucks' other adjustment was starting Nikola Mirotic at forward in place of Sterling Brown, the sub who’d been holding injured Malcolm Brogdon’s place. Mirotic scored just nine points, finally hitting a 3-pointer after it mattered, but his size was helpful defensively, Budenholzer said.
Boston heads home knowing it can advance without winning another game in Milwaukee. The Bucks assured themselves of a Game 5 and have fresher, happier film to study for the weekend games.
As a series, this rock feels like it’s going to take a lot more whacks.
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