MILWAUKEE — The nightly cornucopia of second-guessing on the (lack of) competence, desire, strategy and intelligence on the part of every superstar player and head coach in the NBA playoffs goes double for the defending champions.
Phil Jackson, the soon-to-be Hall of Fame coach? A moron, after Sacramento’s Mike Bibby hit the winning shot in Game 5 of the 2002 Western Conference finals. No matter that Jackson’s Lakers were going for a three-peat at the time.
Rasheed Wallace? There was nowhere for him to hide after he didn’t go out to guard Big Shot Bob in Game 5 of the 2005 Finals.
LeBron James? Clowned mercilessly after running out of gas in hot, hot AT&T Center in Game 1 of the 2014 Finals.
King Henry (Hank) the Fourth?
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
Last season, the Bucks had to win on the biggest stage, under the greatest pressure. A loss to the Nets in the second round, or to Atlanta in the Eastern Conference finals, might well have cost Mike Budenholzer his job. For good measure, even after making the Finals, Milwaukee then lost the first two games of the series in Phoenix. But the Bucks ultimately persevered, and there was rejoicing in the Deer District as the team won its first NBA title in 50 years.
Little of that seems to matter now, in 2022, as Milwaukee slugs it out with the Boston Celtics, who are coming for the Bucks’ necks.
“We’re coming back to this (bleep),” Boston’s Robert Williams, a late scratch before Game 4 on Monday, said upon exiting the Celtics’ locker room after a 116-108 victory, knowing that this series will go at least six games, with Game 5 in Boston on Wednesday and Game 6 back here Friday.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, his team having again blown a double-digit second-half lead to the Celtics in Game 4 — but, this time, not being able to hold on, as it did Saturday — prefers to go with a soft sell in times like these. Publicly, he didn’t sweat the fact that Milwaukee could have taken control of this series, needing only to hold serve once more to return to the conference finals for the third time in fourth years. Now the task will be harder. Now the Celtics, after Al Horford’s emergence from the Wayback Machine on Monday, have belief again.
“The thing with the playoffs is, if you win, you feel great; if you lose, you feel terrible,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’m over myself. Like, at the end of the day, I know what the deal is. The team knows what the deal is. We’ve got to go to Boston and try to win a game now. No matter what I feel, it doesn’t even matter now. Emotions are for movies, not for basketball. Coach Bud says it all the time: You lose a game, and everybody says you played terrible and all that. You may lose by one, and everybody says you played terrible. Then you win by one, and everybody says, ‘Oh, what a great team effort.’ No. We’ve just got to stay focused and locked in. … The game is over with. Once I went to the huddle and we prayed about it, the game’s over.”
Well, yes and no.
The Bucks are a man down at present, without Khris Middleton. Normally, he’d be one of the primary defenders against Boston’s Jayson Tatum. With Middleton still out with a sprained MCL, everyone moves up one spot. For the Bucks, that includes veterans Wes Matthews and George Hill, whom Boston seemed to hunt down the stretch for Tatum to take off the dribble, and to good effect.
For most of the two games here, Tatum was far from himself offensively. He played tentatively. But he was sublime down the stretch Monday, scoring 10 straight in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
“I played with George as a rookie in San Antonio,” Boston coach Ime Udoka said of Hill. “So I know a little bit about George.”
Now, the Bucks have to figure out how to turn off Tatum’s water with the players they have. There is little to be done if Horford continues to shoot the ball as ridiculously efficiently as he has in the past two games. The Celtics take their emotional lead from their 35-year-old center, who plays with a spirit and a resolve few his age can muster. He looked like “Florida Al,” as someone put it in the hallway afterward, the guy who helped lead the Gators to back-to-back NCAA titles with Joakim Noah in 2006 and 2007.
Milwaukee has to contemplate whether to keep starting Grayson Allen, who’s been ineffective against Boston’s guards in this series. The Bucks have to make more 3s. They were just 9-of-27 from behind the arc Monday and are a ghastly 18-of-67 (28.9 percent) in the past two games.
Even championship teams can overreact to the pressure of the playoffs. Those that repeat, though, tend not to make wild adjustments from game to game. Tatum still had to take 24 shots to get his 30 points. The Bucks still outrebounded Boston, without Williams, by 10. But the Celtics also made Antetokounmpo take 32 shots for his 34 points. And in Game 4, Milwaukee took seven more free-throw attempts than Boston did. And the Bucks were ahead with six minutes left.
But they didn’t finish. Now, if the series goes the distance, two of the final three games will be at TD Garden. It’s the playoffs. Postseason dominance is like holding a bar of wet soap. It doesn’t last for long. The Bucks are, suddenly, back to the brink.
“It makes it easier when you’ve got a hell of a leader and a hell of a player like Giannis on your team,” Matthews said. “Like my late grandma would tell me, she would say I have until midnight. I have until midnight to be mad about this, think about this. But then as soon as 12:01 hits, it’s over with. Nothing you can do about it. You prepare your body. The first thing I’m going to do is go back home — well, open presents with my daughter since it’s her birthday. And then, it’s get back to work and figure out how to get home court back.”
(Photo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Al Horford: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)