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

In a series filled with swings, Bucks and Celtics both trying to find next key moment

Clutch moments have defined a series separated by just a few key moments across the 5 games so far.

Giannis Antetokounmpo positioned the Bucks for a clutch comeback in Game 5, and the Bucks now have the Celtics backed up to the brink.

MILWAUKEE – The last time Giannis Antetokounmpo laced up his sneakers for a Game 6 at home with a chance to close out a playoff series, a chorus of “Bucks in six!” booming through Fiserv Forum, good things happened for the Milwaukee Bucks.

For their guests, not so much.

Two hundred ninety-seven days have passed since the Bucks had the Phoenix Suns in the same spot they have the Boston Celtics now. Back in July, two breathtaking defensive plays in separate games set up one of the greatest individual performances in a clinching Finals game.

There was Antetokounmpo’s late block of Suns center Deandre Ayton that helped seal Game 4, followed in Game 5 by Jrue Holiday’s swipe of the ball from Devin Booker and audacious alley-oop pass to Milwaukee’s soaring Greek Freak that seized the victory.

Then it fell to Antetokounmpo to snuff the Suns and bring the Bucks franchise its second NBA championship, 50 years after the first. He scored 50 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, blocked five shots, hit 16 of his 25 shots overall and shot 17-for-19 on free throws as Milwaukee won, 105-98. He left Phoenix with little or no wiggle room that night, nailing down the Finals MVP award while earning his team a whole season of “defending champions” respect.

Best of Giannis Antetokounmpo: 2021 NBA Finals MVP

That status is on the line now, with the Bucks holding a 3-2 lead in their Eastern Conference semifinal series against Boston. No one expects Antetokounmpo to conjure a repeat performance of his 50-spot Friday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) to propel his team to the East finals against Miami. But the set-up sure feels similar, eerily so, owing to a couple of breathtaking defensive play to set up this opportunity for the Bucks and predicament for the Celtics.

In this case, both came in the same game, in the same minute, from the same guy. Holiday turned Boston guard Marcus Smart — coincidentally, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year — into his 2022 version of Booker. And he did it to him twice.

Holiday’s high-arcing 3-point shot had tied Game 5 at 105-105 with 42 seconds left, erasing what was left of Milwaukee’s deficit of 14 points from earlier in the fourth quarter. But it was at the other end 30 seconds later that Holiday won the game.

When Boston inbounded the ball with 11.4 seconds left, trailing 108-107, Holiday came over as a help defender and caught Smart unaware, blocking his driving layup on the right baseline. In one fell swoop, the Bucks guard got the block, contained the ball, kept it and himself from going out of bounds and, when he had no more tightrope to walk, instinctively threw the ball off Smart out of bounds.

After Milwaukee’s Pat Connaughton made two free throws, the Celtics had no timeouts and one last chance with 5.9 seconds left. They got to Smart, only to have Holiday whoosh by him and steal the ball, a merry-go-round rider snagging the brass ring.

Jrue Holiday makes a pair of stunning defensive plays to turn back the Celtics at the end of Game 5.

Give him credit, Smart wanted to cry foul but quickly went silent, showing dignity in accepting how swiftly he and his teammates had let the opportunity slip away.

“We don’t have time to worry about how we lost,” Smart said afterward. “It hurts. It definitely hurts, but we ain’t got time to feel it.”

Instead of playing Game 6 with house money, a chance to close out the Bucks secure in the knowledge they still have Game 7 at TD Garden Sunday if needed, the Celtics have to rebound from that heartbreaker — and rebound overall, especially on the offensive glass — just to make a Sunday game necessary.

They played well at Fiserv in Games 3 and 4, splitting the pair (and coming within a split-second on Al Horford’s second tip after the horn in Game 3 of taking both). Jayson Tatum has been fully activated, the vaunted Boston defense has made Antetokounmpo and the rest labor for almost every point, “old man” Horford has shed five years off his game and it’s possible Celtics big man Robert Williams III might return from two games lost to knee soreness.

Milwaukee can avoid the need for a 3rd road win in Game 7 by taking care of business at home in Friday's Game 6.

For the Bucks, as dramatically as the Game 5 victory swung momentum in their favor, they know Boston controlled things for all but the final few minutes. They are 3-2 at home this postseason, 15-8 the past three playoffs. All-Star forward Khris Middleton remains out (knee sprain), Holiday has been turned into a volume shooter out of necessity and Antetokounmpo has gasped for air in the final quarter of almost every game. Role players such as Connaughton, Bobby Portis and Wesley Matthews have almost no margin for error now.

So there’s pressure on the Bucks, too, knowing that unless they close out the Celtics now, they’ll have to hump back to Boston and try all over again.

It was Portis, after a poor performance in Game 4 (he went back to the court before the lights went out to get up extra shots), who put his team up for good Wednesday, grabbing Antetokounmpo’s missed free throw for a putback at 11.4 on the clickers. He was 3-for-13 at that point, but wound up with 14 points, 15 rebounds and a reminder of what matters most now, when the game plans have been exhausted and the players pretty much are, too.

“The playoffs is all about moments,” Portis said. “It’s not about how many shots you make, not about the points you score. It’s about moments. To me, we’ve got a lot of guys on this team that can have moments.”

Get ready for a bunch of moments in Game 6.

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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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