BOSTON — To successfully defend their NBA championship, the Milwaukee Bucks knew they needed a combination of good player performance, health and, perhaps, a little luck.
But the absence of before Kris Middleton featured prominently throughout their Eastern Conference Semifinals streak against the Boston Celtics and ultimately proved too much to overcome as Milwaukee’s season ended in a 109 loss -81 in Game 7 on Sunday.
The Bucks failed to reach 100 points in three of seven games (all losses) and were heavily outmatched from behind the 3-point line. Boston was 53 points ahead of Milwaukee in the series, which ESPN Stats & Information research shows is by far the largest single-series gap in NBA playoff history.
“We could have used [Middleton]definitely could have used it,” Bucks guard Holiday Jrue mentioned. “He makes big shots and big plays on both sides, but especially offensively.”
Without Middleton, who sprained the MCL in his left knee in Game 2 of their first-round game with the Chicago Bulls, the Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo did his best to lead the team through the series.
Antetokounmpo averaged 33.9 points, 14.7 rebounds and 7.1 assists in the series against a Celtics defense that finished No. 1 in the NBA in regular season efficiency. He finished with as many 40-point games in this series (three) as the Celtics surrendered all season. And Antetokounmpo became the first player in league history to score 200 points, grab 100 rebounds and provide 50 assists in a single series.
“The way Giannis evolved through the series, the way Giannis played against a really good defensive team, against a lot of good individual defensemen was like another one of those growth moments and growth opportunities,” said Bucks coach. Mike Budenholzer mentioned. “I thought he was phenomenal – his scoring, his attack, his play, his selflessness.
“There will always be a time or two where we could have been better, he could have been better, but I would say as the series progressed I was beyond impressed with him and how he did. kind of figured out how to attack, how to score, how to play, how to do all those things. We didn’t get there, and he’s a big part of it, but I’m beyond impressed with how he’s progressed in series.
Antetokounmpo started hot on Sunday, going 6-for-10 in the first half for 17 points before looking tired while struggling down the straight. He shot just 4 of 16 in the second half with 8 points as the Celtics pulled away after halftime.
“Heavy legs. Heavy body. Heavy mind. Everything was heavy,” Antetokounmpo said with a smile after the game. “I was just trying to be aggressive. At the end of the day it’s Game 7 and I’m not going to hold the ball and not watch the rim. I’d rather miss a bunch of shots and keep playing and keep coming and being aggressive. Keep looking for my teammates and keep making good plays and then go into passive mode. I can live with that.
Antetokounmpo has had to shoulder much of the scoring burden for Milwaukee all series, becoming the first player with 25 shot attempts in seven straight playoff games since Allen Iverson in 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Still, after the game, Antetokounmpo said he enjoyed competing in this series against Boston despite failing due to the effort his team put in every game.
“I don’t think I hesitated to talk about it physically,” Antetokounmpo said. “Any of the games. Through adversity I kept coming. This is who I am, this is how I’m built. … I enjoyed it. It definitely made me a better player. You get better with experience.”
In the end, however, Antetokounmpo couldn’t do it all on his own and the Bucks had too many empty performances from their cast. George Hill did not score a point in four of the five games he played. Grayson Allen shot 20.8 percent from 3. The Bucks shot just 27.9 percent from 3 as a team. Aside from Antetokounmpo and Holiday, Pat Connaughton was the only other Bucks player to average a double-digit score (10.3), though Bobby Portis averaged 9.9 points per game in the series.
“Obviously we weren’t trying to make excuses,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think everybody went out there to compete and give their all. That’s what we did from Game 3 against Chicago to Game 7 against Boston. If we had [Middleton], maybe that would have been a different story. But we didn’t.”
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