MILWAUKEE — The sports’ rallying cry of “Not in our house!” held special significance for the Milwaukee Bucks and their fans in Game 6 against the Boston Celtics on Thursday night at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
It wasn’t just a matter of fending off a series-clinching by the visiting Celtics, who led 3-2 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference first-round series when the night began. It was more complicated and emotional than that, considering the 30-year-old arena is about to be shuttered and eventually demolished as the Bucks move into a massive, state-of-the-art, still-to-be-dubbed facility for the start of the 2018-19 NBA season.
So Milwaukee did all the right things in beating Boston 97-86 and forcing Game 7 on Saturday, and still might never get another chance to defend this particular court in this particular building. If the series finale goes to the Celtics at TD Garden, the Bucks essentially will be homeless until the hard hats come off, the ribbons get cut and the Taj Mahoops immediately to the north opens for business.
If, on the other hand, Milwaukee somehow manages to replicate in Boston the performances it has given at the Bradley Center — so far, the home team has won all six games in the series — the gray and largely non-descript joint at 4th and State St. will stay relevant at least for a couple more weeks.
For accuracy’s sake, then, the battle cry ought to be more along the lines of “Keep home alive!”
Just how can Milwaukee, the East’s No. 8 seed, go about that? By getting the individual excellence again of Giannis Antetokounmpo and by flexing the same sort of tenacious yet controlled defense that stymied so many Celtics shooters.
Antetokounmpo, the 23-year-old All Star who’s as elite as he is elongated, had scolded himself after Tuesday’s Game 5 loss in Boston for not being assertive enough. Specifically, that meant not seeking out and taking more than 10 shots in more than 41 minutes. He scored only 16 points, nearly 11 below his season average and not hardly enough in a loss decided by five.
This time, playing nearly identical minutes, Antetokounmpo took 23 shots, made 13 of them and scored 31 points, with 15 rebounds and four assists. The “Greek Freak” first made good on a pledge to himself to get “his” shots — ones he felt more comfortable launching — and then fulfilled the implicit promise he’s made with his teammates and Bucks fans to muster all his skills as effectively as possible.
“I don’t think he forced anything,” coach Joe Prunty said. “He knows the spots he needs to get to, but we also need to get him space around those spots.”
And while it might seem like a media obsession and lazy playoff marketing to drop all sorts of imperatives in a star player’s lap – can LeBron or The Beard or Giannis come through? — there is plenty of history and evidence supporting the view that the best players must play their best at this point both in the season and in a series.
“In the last game,” Prunty said, “he was one assist shy of a triple-double … and everyone was saying that he wasn’t aggressive.”
Antetokounmpo scored 20 of his points after halftime, 12 in the final quarter. That included a putback in which he reached high to claim teammate Malcolm Brogdon’s missed layup, then dropped the ball through for an 89-81 lead with 3:08 to go, cooling the last of the Celtics’ scrambles on the scoreboard.
“He knows what he wants — it’s humbling to see,” the Bucks’ Thon Maker said. “We know we can trust him. We know we can always go back to him. And now we know where his spots are, where he’s going to shoot it, so we can always get him the ball there.”
The other side of Milwaukee’s survival effort Thursday was its strong work choking off the inside on Boston. As currently constituted — that is, without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward — the Celtics are perimeter-challenged, so that’s where the Bucks defenders pushed them.
In the two previous games at Bradley Center, Milwaukee had 12 and 14 blocked shots. By Thursday, the Celtics had gotten the message and shifted more to the outside – which didn’t go well, evidenced by their 10-of-36 3-point shooting. They’ve gone 62-for-177 (35 percent) from beyond the arc in the series and 28-for-89 (31.5 percent) in the three games they’ve lost.
The Bucks have played more aggressively in their three homes games, and harder overall than they have in Boston. It has had its impact on the Celtics’ offensive tendencies.
“Any time we got stagnant, we weren’t very good,” coach Brad Stevens said. “Clearly [the Bucks’] speed, length and athleticism affected us.
“They’re all coming into the paint,” Stevens added. “So you’ve got to take the next best shot. We’d like to take layups but they are converging. … Those guys have put us in those positions. I don’t want to act like we can control everything. They did stuff to us that was very, very effective.
“This has been the same story for the most part here all three games. They just physically dominated us.”
In Boston? Nah, not so much. So the challenge for the Bucks — who already have been whistled for 33 more fouls than the Celtics in the series, while making 32 fewer free throws — is to do all the good stuff again, but this time on the road.
It is, after all, the only way Milwaukee actually can keep home alive.
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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