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If It’s Going To Be A Fight, You Want The Strongest Guys

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - MAY 11: during Game Five of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at TD Garden on May 11, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)
Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

The Bucks are not playing pretty basketball at all right now, nor are they an entirely coherent team without Khris Middleton. Their bench is woefully thin, the team has two players who can create a shot, they cannot even conceive of winning any playoff games in which Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t score 40 or more, and also, they rely on violence expert Grayson Allen to do stuff besides maim opponents. That they now have a 3-2 lead and home court advantage in their wild second-round series against the Boston Celtics is not a rational situation. Good news: math bows to beef in the NBA playoffs, and the Bucks are on the verge of the Conference Finals thanks to their ability to out-bastard the Celtics.

Where the Bucks are a bunch of guys orbiting around Antetokounmpo and trying to make it work, the Celtics know exactly who they are. They led the majority of Game 5, as Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart kept the offense steadily producing good shots thanks to a more ruthless sense of mismatch hunting than the Celtics leaned on in the first four games. They led by 11 early in the fourth quarter, then by six with two minutes left. The Bucks went after Derrick White, who passes for the weak link in Boston’s closing lineup, and he blocked both Jrue Holiday and Antetokounmpo. Boston should have won this game, and they would have, had the game not lurched suddenly and violently into the Blood Zone.

As Boston was grabbing their late six-point lead on a huge Al Horford dunk, Antetokounmpo got popped above his left eye by his teammate Pat Connaughton and began dripping blood all over the place. This immediately sparked a response from the Bucks, as Antetokounmpo nailed a three on the next play, grabbed a one-handed rebound in traffic after Milwaukee stopped Boston, then watched as Jrue Holiday splashed a three to tie it. Antetokounmpo ended the game with 40 points and 11 rebounds, his sixth 40-10 game of the playoffs already, and he was as physically overwhelming for the Celtics as ever. Boston can throw as many gigantic wings and spry bigs at him as any team in the playoffs, though he still would regularly get easy-looking buckets seemingly every time he got the rock within nine feet of the hoop.

After the Giannis three, Milwaukee’s other bastards took over. Antetokounmpo missed a game-tying free throw with 14 seconds left, only for Bobby Portis to grab an offensive rebound and convert. Portis has been coming off the bench for a few games here, and while he only shot 4-for-14 on Wednesday, he grabbed 15 rebounds and gave the Bucks an untouchable lead with his 15th. If the playoffs are a matter of determining who’s got the most dawg in them, very few can contend with Portis. Boston’s gambit in this series (without Robert Williams anyway) is that they can squeeze enough stops and rebounds from their smaller lineup to allow them to stock the floor with four shooters at all times on the offensive end. The risk is that someone like Bobby Portis does something like grab seven offensive rebounds to your whole team’s five, and makes you pay.

The game was not yet won, though the Celtics wouldn’t attempt another shot, thanks solely to Holiday. Celtics coach Ime Udoka drew up … well, I’m not really sure what this was beyond an attempt to get a shot up with enough time on the clock for like a dozen offensive rebounds. No matter. Holiday erased Marcus Smart’s floater, then corralled the ball and maintained his balance just long enough to peg it off Smart’s leg. Two free throws later, Smart was driving towards a would-be game-tying three when Holiday again picked his pocket and ended the game.

Holiday spent the entire game insisting that the Celtics meet his uncompromising tenacity, though they were skilled enough to shoot their way out of trouble for most of the night. Given how banged-up Philly is and how puzzlingly toothless Miami is, Milwaukee might be the favorite in either version of the hypothetical Eastern Conference Finals. However, if the Bucks’ bastard bona fides are a story of this series, that’s only a supporting narrative to the central arc, that momentum means as little as home court, and either team has enough to smoke the other if they can impose their will on the game. Boston’s not dead, just beaten up.