MILWAUKEE — In the wake of the Milwaukee Bucks’ Game 1 loss to the Boston Celtics, there was concern across Wisconsin.
Legitimate concern. Genuine concern. Deep concern.
Maybe, just maybe, the talented but underachieving Celtics could raise their level of play enough during the playoffs and put an end to the Bucks’ dream season in the second round. If nothing else, the Celtics were the first team the Bucks met in the postseason that had a chance to beat them (Sorry, Detroit).
It turns out such worries were unfounded. Indeed, until the Bucks’ 116-91 dismantling of the Celtics Wednesday night at Fiserv Forum, their fourth straight victory after that series-opening loss, no one truly realized just how good they are.
Now everyone knows: The Bucks are good enough to win the NBA title.
That doesn’t mean they will; it means they can. It wasn’t until they dominated the Celtics in four straight games — two in Milwaukee, two in Boston — following that shocking home-court loss on April 28 that we could really say that for certain.
The opponents will get tougher than the disjointed Celtics in future series, but the sky is now officially the limit for the Bucks.
“They are one hell of a basketball team,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “They’ve been building habits every day and those habits showed up and they showed up over and over again. We make a teaching tape every year for our teams about different things — closeouts, recovering, flying around (on defense) — and the Bucks are going to be on a lot of clips. They were tremendous. Credit them, credit their coaches, credit their players. They’re better than we are and they earned that and it was clear throughout the five-game series.”
In improving their record to 8-1 in the playoffs, with seven of the wins by double digits, the Bucks did something that championship-caliber teams do. They had a response for everything their opponents threw at them, a response for every situation they found themselves in. And now they’re whole once again as starting guard Malcolm Brogdon returned Wednesday after missing seven weeks with a foot injury.
The Bucks’ ability to answer adversity was on full display in the Celtics series. They responded to the loss in Game 1 with a dominant performance in Game 2. Then, after they won Game 3 in Boston to take back home-court advantage, they didn’t get satisfied. Instead, they won Game 4. Wednesday night, they showed how to close out an opponent with a never-a-doubt blowout of the Celtics, who were unfurling a white flag by the end of the third quarter.
For a team like Milwaukee with a shortage of playoff experience, the ability to respond is a valuable trait as it heads into the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2001.
“I just think the competitiveness, the physicality, the activity that you need, especially playing a great team like Boston, we didn’t have it in the first game,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think Boston played well; we didn’t play well. We didn’t do the things you need to do to play against a really good team. The biggest thing between game one and game two had nothing to do with any coverage or any scheme. It was just, we needed to compete. When we compete, we’re at our best. ... Our activity and our competitive spirit is what made the difference after game one.”
The Celtics may have taken the Bucks by surprise with their physical play in the opener, but Milwaukee was dominant in every way after that.
Their star was better: Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 30 points per game after the Celtics sold out to stop him in Game 1. Boston’s Kyrie Irving, on the other hand, averaged 19 points on 30.1 percent shooting in the final four games.
Their bench was better: In the final three games of the series, the Bucks bench outscored the Celtics bench by almost 20 points per game. Guard George Hill and forward Pat Connaughton gave the Bucks a boost in every game.
Their coach was better: The series essentially turned when Budenholzer started switching on defense in Game 2. And Budenholzer must have been doing something right at halftime because the Bucks put away the Celtics in the third quarter of all four wins.
Their defense was better: The Bucks gradually choked off the Celtics offense starting in Game 2 and the defense was never better than it was Wednesday night. Boston shot 31.2 percent from the field and 17.9 percent from the 3-point line against the Bucks’ swarming defense.
“We talk about defense every day, every film session,” Budenholzer said. “I just think the way we guarded, the way we covered for each other, the commitment that was on the defensive end just sets the tone for us. And (it’s great) to have everybody contribute offensively, for Giannis to trust the pass and trust his teammates and everybody to just very much play together on the defensive and offensive ends, to do everything together.”
The Bucks had their doubters all season and probably still do, but there aren’t any in their locker room. After the series was secured, Antetokounmpo credited guard Eric Bledsoe with keeping everyone confident.
“My man Bledsoe texted us after game one and said, ‘We got this guys,’” Antetokounmpo said.
After dominating the Celtics, maybe they do.