BOSTON — It’s now two out of three games, best team wins. Or is it best player?
It’s very likely the conference semifinal series between the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks will be decided by what’s left of Jayson Tatum and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
This is no disrespect to Al Horford, who’s suddenly 35 going on 25. Or Jrue Holiday, who’s been a terrific ball distributor and ball denier. Or Jaylen Brown, so steady for much of this series. Or anyone else who might surface with a strong effort between now and whenever the final buzzer sounds on this intense best-of-seven.
This is because these close playoff matchups are usually rescued by the player who’s supposed to do the rescuing. And who’s more qualified than Giannis, the league’s most accomplished player of the last four years, and Tatum, one of the league’s best players of the last four months?
That’s what will make this series, tied 2-2, worth watching over the next handful of nights. With the margin of error and window starting to close for both teams, the Celtics and Bucks will instinctively go to their comfort zones, their franchise guys, their security blankets. You watch where the ball lands if the remaining games go down to the final two minutes. You watch who’ll start hiding and who’ll start demanding.
Here’s a hint: Giannis and Tatum will do the latter.
They’ve traveled different paths in this series so far. Tatum had the rougher journey through the first three games, although he recovered nicely in the second half of Game 4 and delivered the Boston win with some timely buckets and accepted the challenge of guarding Giannis straight-up on a few occasions. Meanwhile: Giannis has gaudy numbers that explain his impact, and he’s dominated for stretches, but he disappeared in the moment of truth in Game 4 and his free throw shooting is sketchy.
So what can we expect from each? Here’s a crystal ball.
What to expect from Giannis Antetokounmpo
The Celtics are throwing a variety of defenders his way, each bringing their own tendencies and specialties to give Giannis a different look and make him labor. Grant Williams is built low to the ground, perhaps the most physically strongest of the Giannis Stoppers, and adds intensity — he’s not scared. Horford lacks the lateral quickness but has the height and savvy to cause issues (Giannis is shooting 35.8% when guarded by him). And of course, there’s the newly minted Kia Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Smart, who is so crafty and prideful, even though he’s surrendering five inches.
They’re all making it as hard as possible on Giannis, who’s averaging 32 points but on rather tame (for him) 43.9% shooting.
But they also must be mindful of the officiating, and sometimes they fall on the wrong side of the whistle when Giannis gets a head of steam and charges the paint. That said, Giannis, too, can’t push his luck in those situations, either, and anyway, he’s shooting 60% from the line this series. So it really becomes a game of chess and also a game of guess — how much contact will the referees allow?
Lucky for the Bucks, Giannis is a better passer than ever, and he’s willing to spot the open man. However, if Pat Connaughton and Wesley Matthews and Grayson Allen aren’t hitting those shots — and they’ve been streaky this series — Giannis is keeping the ball, as he did in Game 4 when he took 32 shots with only five assists. It really comes down to trust in those situations; are his teammates earning his trust?
Giannis has tied Kareem for the most 30-point games in Bucks playoff history with 30.
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) May 10, 2022
Giannis is impactful, as usual, on the other end as well. He’s averaging 13 rebounds and shadowing the rim defensively. In all, Giannis is giving convincing signs that he’s the best player in these playoffs, and the Bucks hope that translates into them being the best team — or at least have enough to advance another round.
Well, that could depend on what a certain player from Boston does to counter that notion.
What to expect from Jayson Tatum
Much like Giannis, Tatum has been the focus of the other team’s defense, and in this case, the Bucks bring it better than most. Ever since Brook Lopez returned from back surgery, Milwaukee turned it up a notch. The Bucks are back to frustrating opponents after early-season lapses, leading the rest of the NBA in defensive rating.
Tatum in particular has felt the heat, and he unraveled for a few games this series, taking much of his annoyance on the officiating. After torching the Nets for 29.5 points and outplaying Kevin Durant in the previous round, Tatum is at 22.5 and making only 38.3% of his shots against Milwaukee.
But it’s hard to keep a lethal scorer down for long, and Tatum responded strongly late in Monday’s win, matching Horford with 30 points. Has he finally figured out the code? Perhaps. The next two (or three) games will tell for sure, and if Tatum is back to attacking and finishing and dropping buckets deep — in other words, providing a variety of shots from range that not even Giannis can duplicate — the Bucks might be in trouble.
cold-blooded 🥶 pic.twitter.com/jhWRiCdz1G
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 10, 2022
“I played terrible in Game 3 and we almost had a chance to win, and that was really the toughest part, just knowing that,” Tatum said. “So I was just really eager to get back and be ready to play, whether it was scoring or not. Just coming out and just playing better on both ends of the floor and doing what I can.”
The Bucks are tossing Matthews (mainly, with some success) and Giannis and Holiday at Tatum and forcing him to deal with those different looks and body types. For the most part, this strategy has worked, but again, Tatum is too gifted a player to endure lengthy shooting slumps.
Therefore, it becomes a matter of who can trump who between the two biggest stars of this series. It makes for breathtaking basketball, lots of back-and-forths, and gives us a chance to see how they respond under the intensity, especially now that the stakes are higher with every game from here.
Giannis is the more battle-tested player, having already won a championship, having dropped a 50-piece in the decisive title game, having done everything an NBA player can possibly do over the last few years. Barring an injury, Giannis will be very visible and vivid over the remaining games of this series, where he must win at least once in Boston.
“Nobody said it’s going to be easy, and at the end of the day, we know what the deal is now,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’ve got to go to Boston; we’ve got to play good basketball. But now with how our body feels and what we feel in our mind and all that, who really cares? Nobody cares. We know what the deal is.”
Tatum, though, seems every bit as hungry, and maybe with a bit more to prove. He’s growing into a superstar and realizes the only way he can stamp his arrival on that level is to beat somebody who’s already on that level.
Celtics vs. Bucks is headed to a frantic finish and most likely an entertaining and close one. This series is begging for a hero, and the most likely candidates are the two you’d expect.
So who is it: Giannis or Tatum? This semifinal wants to know.
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