BOSTON — The worst part of Wednesday’s potentially iconic collapse by the Boston Celtics was Ime Udoka had already called timeout to address boxing out on free throws.
Udoka dug into Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Grant Williams as they crossed his path on the way to the bench. Giannis Antetokounmpo, down to 60.4% at the free throw line in the series, missed two in a row there early in the third quarter after driving through light contact by Brown. Brook Lopez planted himself in front of the rim and swatted the ball to the perimeter, where Jrue Holiday caught it with Brown having stumbled to the floor in front of him. Holiday buried a three over him and the Bucks pulled from down nine points at halftime to within three.
The sequence resembled one that followed 21 minutes later. One that could haunt Celtics fans for years. Antetokounmpo reached the free throw line posting up Williams with Milwaukee behind by two points with 14.2 seconds remaining. Udoka preemptively called timeout before the attempts. Giannis had missed three of his nine free throw tries. If he missed one and Milwaukee recovered it, the Bucks would have a chance at a win instead of a tie. Boos flooded TD Garden as he made the first, lining up for the second as Williams cleared out Wes Matthews. Brown blocked out Bobby Portis. Tatum held back Pat Connaughton in the back court. Marcus Smart darted past Holiday and reached the ball as it clanked off the right corner of the rim. Then, someone tipped it away.
It wasn’t a Buck. It was Brown knocking the ball away from Smart into Portis’ hands, Tatum reaching Portis too late as he tossed the ball off the backboard and Celtics fans, horrified, watched the ball roll around the rim twice on the way down. Milwaukee won Game 5, 110-107, after trailing by 14 points earlier in the quarter. The Celtics will travel on the road for Game 6 with numerous regrets from one of their worst quarters all season, one they could’ve erased by grabbing one more rebound.
“That’s been the story on free throws. We figured it was going to be a miss. We crashed, and it just fell between me and Smart I guess. Unfortunate bounce and just super unlucky play,” Brown told CLNS Media, pausing as if replaying it in his head. “I don’t know what else to tell you.”
For all the other miscues and self-inflicted frustrations that occurred for Boston through that moment in the series and quarter, Antetokounmpo’s free throw shooting became a major break for the Celtics. The improved 72.2% shooter at the line, who made 9-of-12 in Milwaukee’s Game 3 win, fell back into 6-of-11 and 6-of-10 nights over the past two games. It further ailed the Bucks’ half court struggles, the team already running the worst offense of any team in the playoffs against Boston’s stingy and physical defense. The Celtics had to feel comfortable sending him to the line, and dodged a few three-point plays when they couldn’t secure the initial stop.
All of Antetokounmpo’s opponents received the same benefit last postseason too, but the Bucks overcame his 64.6% efficiency at the line and a nightmarish second round series against the Nets where Brooklyn began using its infamous 10-second countdown chant to clown Milwaukee’s star. The problem: Giannis kept putting his head down, drawing contact in the lane and shooting free throws undeterred. Milwaukee might’ve faced a math problem against a prolific Nets offense, and Atlanta and Phoenix afterward, scoring one point at a time when Antetokounmpo got fouled and sometimes going away empty-handed.
So while most teams don’t concede to their own players missing, the Bucks started planning for it. Lopez, specifically, mastered the timing and positioning following Antetokounmpo’s misses, the star’s 10-second count almost like a quarterback’s setting his receivers off the line, and Lopez’ long arms sent countless misses to the perimeter for second-chance baskets against unset defenses.
“Last season, came off the bench for the Bucks, and Giannis, Khris and Jrue, they get the majority of the play calls and the majority of the shots,” Portis told CLNS Media post-game. “I had to figure out ways where I could get the ball and essentially be a garbage man sometimes down the floor, crashing the corners and things like that to give myself and opportunity to get the ball and get a stick back. So I had Syd, one of our videographers, she sent me all the game tapes of their free throws and where they miss at the most and things like that. Most of the time Giannis always misses front rim, so I tried to get in front, somewhere in the front rim and I was blessed and fortunate that it came to me at that moment. I do watch film on Giannis, Khris and Jrue’s misses to see where they miss at most of the time, and shoutout Syd for sending me the film. Love.”
Of course, the plan for Antetokounmpo on Wednesday would’ve been for him to hit both free throws and tie the game. The follow wasn’t the best example of the Bucks’ timing, more of a result of the Celtics’ mistake than Milwaukee’s positioning, but it still reflected a visual that became emblematic of the team’s 2021 title run.
Mike Budenholzer said the team emphasized offensive rebounding in general entering the game, Boston missing Robert Williams III for the past two games and playing smaller lineups on their way to a Game 4 comeback. The Celtics went bigger with Williams and Daniel Theis minutes in Game 5, but the Bucks still grabbed 17 offensive rebounds, now averaging 11.6 per game in this series.
Udoka, who dedicated two timeouts to boxing out on the free throws, called it inexcusable to not be prepared for a miss by a poor free throw shooter. Especially with two so fresh in their minds. While Lopez set up Holiday following one earlier in the game, he had tapped back Antetokounmpo’s miss into the basket following two misses late in the third quarter in Milwaukee.
The Celtics almost surely saw it on film. Ben Sullivan, a former Bucks assistant coach, is on Boston’s staff. So is Udoka, Brooklyn’s assistant coach last season. The Celtics had been eliminated one round earlier. Now, they see themselves one loss away from their season ending early again.
“We talk about offensive rebounding, we’ve tried to find ways to let that be something that helps our offense, but not specifically free throw offensive rebounding. That’s Bobby making a play. Wes, he has a knack in there. Offensive rebounding is something we’ve been emphasizing and want more of, whatever the situation is.”