By Tom Oates

The Wisconsin State Journal

 

MILWAUKEE - The between-games message was the same from every one of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Don't overreact. Don't make a bunch of crazy adjustments. Don't let a loss, even a 22-point loss, in the opening game of their best-of-seven playoff series against the Boston Celtics cause widespread panic.

In setting the tone for the Bucks, coach Mike Budenholzer cautioned that adjustments are "sometimes overrated." Forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said the Bucks definitely wouldn't be making major changes. Other players toed that party line.

"We're just going to keep doing what we've been doing all year," Antetokounmpo said.

The expectation, of course, was that the Bucks simply would do it better than they had in the first game against the Celtics, where they lacked urgency, intensity, toughness and, most of all, aggressiveness. The Bucks were gambling that getting back to playing their game would be enough to beat Boston, which has as much talent as any team in the Eastern Conference but only recently started to play like it.

Eschewing adjustments was risky for the Bucks because losing Game 2 wasn't an option. They had to win it or their glorious season would have been in danger of expiring long before anyone thought it would.

Going to Boston for the next two games and having to win four of the next five would have been an insurmountable obstacle even for the East's No. 1 seed. And such a sudden fall from grace would prove the critics right when they said the Bucks weren't built to be a playoff monster and that the Celtics, the East's No. 4 seed, were going to put them in their place.

More than any adjustments, what the Bucks needed to avoid one of the great face plants in franchise history was for Antetokounmpo to keep doing what he has been doing all year. They had to get Giannis back to being Giannis. When he plays like the NBA MVP that he likely will be this season, everything else seems to fall into place for the Bucks.

Antetokounmpo made sure everything fell into place Tuesday night at Fiserv Forum. Playing with a strength and sharpness that was absent in Game 1, he pushed and prodded Milwaukee to a 123-102 victory over Boston, sending the Bucks to Boston with a 1-1 series tie and a renewed confidence that they can beat the Celtics on the road.

"I just came into Game 2 with the mindset of being aggressive and making the right plays," he said.

Milwaukee's big three - Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe - combined for 78 points, many of them in a 28-2 run that buried the Celtics in the second half. But in the playoffs, teams need their superstars to carry the load and that's exactly what Antetokounmpo did with 29 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.

Those were great numbers, but this was his most important stat: He shot 18 free throws. The Celtics got physical with Antetokounmpo in Game 1 and he wasn't assertive, finishing with 22 points on 7-for-21 shooting, including 4-for-16 from inside the 3-point line. He was in attack mode from the start Tuesday night, but he didn't try to do too much, either.

"I thought Giannis' mindset and the aggressiveness with which he played, the force with which he played, is what he needs to do and what we need to do," Budenholzer said. "He's going to get to the free throw line a lot, the way he attacks, and he's going to finish or go (to the line) and sometimes both."

Tuesday night, Antetokounmpo made quicker and better decisions while driving against Boston's physical, double-teaming defense. He looked to pass early in the game and then found open lanes to the basket once Middleton, Bledsoe and his other teammates started hitting from the outside.

"I don't think he was that bad the other day," Budenholzer said. "But was he better today? He certainly was better, I think, finding his teammates.”

With Antetokounmpo playing more aggressively and with greater purpose, Middleton got more open shots and Bledsoe got more open driving lanes. Both responded with breakout games.

"He's at his best when he's playing aggressive, getting downhill, getting to the paint and putting pressure on the defense," Middleton said.

It turned out Budenholzer made some adjustments, too. He changed the starting lineup, replacing Sterling Brown with sharp-shooting Nikola Mirotic to spread the floor more. He shortened his bench, with only George Hill and Pat Connaughton getting major minutes among the reserves. And he switched more on defense than he had all season.

The Bucks also got Antetokounmpo the ball in different spots so he could attack the defense in different ways.

"Getting him in different spots is something that we try and do throughout the year," Budenholzer said. "Sometimes we're better at it than others.”