2022 Playoffs: East Semifinal | Celtics (2) vs. Bucks (3)

5 takeaways from Celtics' season-saving Game 6 victory over Bucks

Facing elimination, Jayson Tatum steps up with 46 points for the Celtics, who withstand another brilliant performance from Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Giannis Antetokounmpo looked to help the Bucks advance, but a superstar performance from Jayson Tatum forced Game 7.

MILWAUKEE – Five takeaways from the Boston Celtics’ 108-95 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 Friday at Fiserv Forum that evened their Eastern Conference semifinal series, 3-3, and force Game 7 on Sunday afternoon in Boston (3:30 ET, ABC).

1. Tatum’s superstar-is-born performance

Boston’s Jayson Tatum already had a flashy resume, from three All-Star appearances and an All-NBA selection to a contract paying him upwards of $163 million from this season through 2025-26. But what he did in saving the Celtics’ season for at least another 42 hours or so upped his profile and reputation another couple levels.

The sleek, smooth-shooting forward had a Giannis Antetokounmpo sort of game — against Giannis Antetokounmpo. Frankly the deck seemed stacked too high against Tatum and his team, particularly given Boston’s meltdown in the closing minutes of Game 5.

So here they were Friday night with all those bad memories, on the road, against the NBA’s defending champions and the two-time Most Valuable Player, facing elimination. And just when the Celtics needed it most, Tatum said, “Nah.”

“That was in the back of our minds, Game 5,” Tatum said after scoring 46 points with nine rebounds and four assists. He took 32 shots, made 17 of them and at 7-of-15 from the arc, hit as many 3-pointers as the entire Bucks team combined (7-of-29). He played nearly 43 minutes and logged a plus-21.

Teammate Marcus Smart, burned on a pair of pivotal plays in Game 5, claimed he didn’t sleep between the two games. Other Celtics kicked themselves and mulled it over, how they’d let Milwaukee off the hook and might live to regret it.

“That’s something we talked about,” Tatum said. “We felt they beat us on winning plays, hustle plays, 50/50 balls. They were tougher than us in that fourth quarter, Game 5.

“Our season was on the line.”

None of them did more about it than Tatum. Just when it looked as if the game was headed for a rerun – Boston opening a big lead, then watching it fizzle in the fourth – Tatum flipped the script.

Jayson Tatum scores 12 of his 46 points in the 4th quarter to send the series back to Boston for Game 7.

The Celtics’ 18-point lead had shrunk to six when Tatum subbed in with 9:37 left. The Fiserv Forum crowd, nervous and quiet for much of the middle two quarters, was alive. Then Antetokounmpo drained a 3-pointer from 28 feet to make it 85-81 and it was on.

Tatum hit a fadeaway shot. Then he pulled up for a 3. Next, a pass from Smart for a turnaround jumper, followed a couple possessions later by another 3-pointer over Milwaukee’s Pat Connaughton.

The Celtics ran their offense to get Tatum into favorable matchups. At the end of his 10-point run, they even used him as a decoy to set up a 3 by his sidekick Jaylen Brown. That got the lead back to double digits, 98-87, with about five minutes left and the Bucks never got closer.

Tatum had taken some heat in the wake of the Game 5 collapse for going a little Teflon in his demeanor, pre-empting anyone who wants to see him or the other Boston players hanging their heads, kicking tables or other histrionics. “I mean, I could come up here and pout and be sad and I’m sure there would be a big story about how we’re defeated and I don’t believe in us,” the 24-year-old said that night. “Or I could come in like, you can’t change what happened.”

Instead of trying to frame the narrative in Game 6, Tatum wrote the whole darn story.

2. Giannis had to do it all – and nearly did

His numbers in the series already were ridiculous, and they got dialed up in Game 6 when he became only the third player in NBA playoff history to score at least 40 pounds, grab 20 rebounds and pass for five or more assists. The other two: Shaquille O’Neal and Wilt Chamberlain.

But Antetokounmpo seemed a little lonely and overworked in Game 6. The other seven rotation Bucks who played combined for only 51 points to his 44. He went 14-of-15 from the foul line, they went 2-of-3. He was 2-of-3 on 3-pointers, they were 5-of-26. And so it went.

Boston got big offensive performances from its three best players, with Tatum, Smart (21) and Brown (22) combining for 89 points. The Bucks had only Jrue Holiday, with 17 points on 17 shots, and Pat Connaughton (14), helping Antetokounmpo with the scoring.

The most obvious problem is All-Star wing Khris Middleton’s continued absence with a left knee strain. Don’t be surprised if the elimination factor Sunday flushes Middleton back into the lineup, minutes restriction be darned.

But as Holiday saw it, there was no overcoming Boston’s 3-point prowess in this one. The Celtics launched 43 and made 17, with an 8-of-15 opening barrage. The Bucks were misfiring all night form deep: 2-of-7 in the first, 1-of-9 in the second, 1-of-4 in the third.

So how might they fix the disparity in Game 7? Jack up even more.

“We got to get up more threes,” Holiday said. “We have to find a way to get up more threes and make more threes.”

3. These playoffs really need more charging calls

We’re being sarcastic, of course. Oh, there probably are some old-school coaches somewhere watching games like this one and reveling in the site of strong, thoroughly fit athletes falling backwards again, and again, and again, in search of drawing offensive fouls.

But the entertainment value of that is negligible, and the threat of injury to talented thoroughbred-like players is borderline negligent. No one wants defenders to be treated like bowling pins, but when they go hunting for charges, some of the game’s biggest stars – like Antetokounmpo and Tatum – are put at crazy risk.

Add to that the tendency for coaches to use their challenges on such plays and we end up with players crashing to the floor and games grinding to a halt to see if somebody truly went statue in time to thwart a highlight or poster play.

Here’s the kicker: It can mess up even the team trying to draw those fouls. After Antetokounmpo picked up his fourth foul with nearly 20 minutes left in the game, the Celtics got wrapped up in trying to force his fifth and, hey, maybe his sixth. A little “heavy,” coach Ime Udoka called it. And it messed with their play.

Grant Williams thought he got the Greek Freak at 10:16 of the fourth, only to have the Bucks challenge and win. Finally, Tatum got busy playing winning basketball and the trick-the-refs stuff got put away. Wish it could stay there.

 4. Grayson Allen is getting picked on

In the regular season and even in Milwaukee’s first-round series against Chicago, guard Grayson Allen was a helpful, pesky kind of player. He started 61 games, made 40% of his 3-pointers, irritated opponents with his defense and reputation, and was gifted a two-year, $20 million contract extension before he even played a real game for the Bucks.

But Allen has been a liability against the Celtics. He’s shooting 36%, including 5-of-20 on 3-pointers, and while Milwaukee has been outscored by 27 over the first six games, that number has been 43 when Allen’s on the court. Boston shooters seek him out as a defender to exploit (at least until George Hill comes into the game).

“The plus-minus is a tough stat,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “But Grayson is doing his best.

“The start of the third quarter kind of stands out to me [as a struggle]. I’m sure Grayson could be better, but as a group, it’s really on all of us to be better coming out of the third quarter.”

By the way, it seems only fair to note here that Budenholzer didn’t help his club when he called his predictable, notorious UIOLI (use it or lose it) timeout with 3:02 left. Teams are permitted to carry only two timeouts into the final three minutes, and the Bucks coach is almost comically dedicated to not having any stripped away.

Only this time, Antetokounmpo had the ball and was pushing upcourt with a couple teammates. Milwaukee’s best offense in the series has come in transition. Yet Budenholzer stopped the break, then wound up out of the timeout with his star taking a rare and unsuccessful corner 3-pointer.

The group has to be better.

5. Is ‘Game 7’ really two words, a word and a number, or what?

That “best two words in sports” cliché might be getting old, but Game 7s themselves never do. The NBA will have a pair of them Sunday, with Celtics and Bucks deciding the Miami Heat’s dance partner for the East finals before Phoenix and Dallas hash things out to see which faces Golden State in the West.

There was chatter after Game 6 focused on the end of the regular season, when Boston closed out with a victory over Memphis while Milwaukee went belly-up at Cleveland. That’s how the two 51-31 teams wound up seeded second and third, respectively, with the Bucks getting their preferred first-round clash with Chicago while the Celtics had to face Brooklyn (a presumably tougher foe at the time).

Their tie-breaker difference in the standings is the reason Boston got homecourt advantage in this series, which now means Game 7 at TD Garden. There’s only one problem with that: The road team has won four of the six games so far.

From the words and tone of the participants late Friday night, it sounded as if the Celtics were glad to play the clincher at home, while the more seasoned Bucks showed their “bring it on” swagger. Would we expect anything different?

“Good old Game 7,” Antetokounmpo said. “Beautiful.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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