The pivotal stop on the Bucks’ 2021 title path was a second-round Game 7 victory on the road against the Brooklyn Nets, an instant classic that saw Kevin Durant score 48 points but fall short in overtime against a deeper and healthier opponent. Antetokounmpo left the series calling Durant “the best player in the world” and proceeded to carry Milwaukee to its first championship in 50 years.
One year later, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks found themselves in the same spot — facing elimination in Game 7 on the road — but with inverted roles. Antetokounmpo spent the last two weeks solidifying his own case as basketball’s brightest light beyond any doubt, often single-handedly carrying the Bucks against the fierce and focused Celtics, led by Jayson Tatum, a rising superstar eyeing a first title of his own.
Like Durant last season, who was asked to do more without an injured Kyrie Irving and a limping James Harden, Antetokounmpo took on an almost comical burden against Boston with Khris Middleton sidelined by a hamstring injury. After scoring 42 points in Game 3, 40 points in Game 5 and 44 points in Game 6, Antetokounmpo scored or assisted on Milwaukee’s first 24 points in Game 7, serving as setup man, finisher and punisher.
Stuck without consistent scoring from his wings for the entire series, the two-time MVP unleashed an expanded arsenal of power drives, jump hooks and drop steps. When the Bucks lost a Game 7 in Boston to close the first round of the 2018 playoffs, a 23-year-old Antetokounmpo was held in check and limited to 22 points. Boston never found a reliable answer to this more mature and cerebral version of Antetokounmpo, though it tried swarming, flopping and everything in between.
Even as the Celtics pulled away by negating the rest of the Bucks with active on-ball defense and timely rotations, Antetokounmpo freed himself for a soaring alley-oop finish that brought gasps from the Boston crowd. He finished with 25 points, 20 rebounds and nine assists Sunday, but showed signs of fatigue at the end of an exhausting and physical series that left him blooded in Game 5.
The Celtics’ collective effort proved to be more than enough in the end, as they overcame a slow start with attentive ball movement and improved outside shooting, receiving a huge lift from Grant Williams. The third-year forward, who moved into the starting lineup in Game 4 following an injury to Robert Williams, scored a career-high 27 points and thwarted the Bucks’ inside-out defensive strategy with a career-high seven three-pointers.
“A role player can flip a series,” Celtics Coach Ime Udoka said of Williams. “You rely on your big guys to do what they do every night, but those [role] guys can make or break a series. We don’t rely on one guy. That’s what makes us harder to guard.”
Boston’s nonstop perimeter barrage made the difference: Eight Celtics players combined to make 22 three-pointers, while the Bucks shot just 4 for 33 from deep. Boston broke the game open with three three-pointers shortly after halftime, and Tatum finished with 23 points, six rebounds and eight assists in a strong follow-up to his Game 6 takeover.
The Celtics’ defense, which ranked first in the regular season and has ranked third in the playoffs, held the Bucks to their lowest postseason scoring output of Coach Mike Budenholzer’s four-year tenure. Middleton’s absence loomed large, given that he was Milwaukee’s second-leading scorer and a key late-game weapon in last year’s playoffs.
“It’s an age-old equation, a calculus of the NBA,” Budenholzer said, holding back tears. “You’ve got have to have good players, you’ve got to be a little bit lucky and you’ve got to be healthy. You need all three of those things to win and advance in the playoffs. I’ve heard it a million times. I’ve learned it over and over again. We weren’t as healthy as we’d like to be, but nobody cares.”
Having lived to tell the tale of scaling Mount Antetokounmpo, the Celtics are halfway to their first title since 2008 and their second in the last 36 years. Paul Pierce, a star forward on the Celtics’ last championship team, celebrated the monumental victory with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft from their courtside seats.
Boston will face the top-seeded Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, which open Tuesday in Miami. The rivals met at the same stage two years ago, when the Heat eliminated the Celtics from the bubble playoffs. These Celtics are older, wiser and more battle-tested than they were in 2020, and Tatum has honed his ability to close games.
With every right to feel confident going into the rematch, the TD Garden crowd serenaded the Celtics with “Beat the Heat” chants as they closed out the Bucks.