- Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.
IT’S THE CALM they remember — the calm that steadied the Boston Celtics during what they hoped might become their defining postseason moment, the calm they are banking on to prolong their postseason one more game now.
The Celtics had been cruising since mid-January. They had swept the Brooklyn Nets in the first round — a matchup they’d won their way into by declining to tank their final regular-season game. The Milwaukee Bucks were a stern test in the next round, but the Celtics had home-court advantage. The Bucks were missing Khris Middleton.
Boston led 93-79 early in the fourth quarter at home in Game 5. Its offense began to freeze up. The Bucks whittled the lead behind some transition 3s. Boston was still up 105-99 with just over two minutes left after an Al Horford dunk.
Then came the unraveling. Wesley Matthews beat Horford for an offensive rebound, leading to a Giannis Antetokounmpo 3. Marcus Smart turned the ball over on a flailing drive. A Bobby Portis putback off an Antetokounmpo missed free throw gave the Bucks a one-point lead with 11.4 seconds left.
Out of a Boston timeout, Jrue Holiday darted inside to swat a Smart floater, retrieved the ball in mid-air, and tossed it off Smart out of bounds — one of the seminal defensive plays of the season. Two free throws put the Bucks up by 3, and Holiday ended the game — ended a miserable two minutes for Smart — by picking Smart’s pocket at half court.
It was almost as demoralizing a loss as you could imagine. It was possible the Celtics had lost their season in a blur of addled basketball and expert opportunism from a proud champion. They have been thinking a lot about that game over the past five days, having seen a 2-1 lead in these Finals turn into a 3-2 deficit — with Boston holding fourth-quarter leads in both Games 4 and 5.
“We had a chance to go up 3-1 last night,” Ime Udoka, Boston’s steely and creative first-year head coach, told ESPN the day after Game 4. “But we have the ability to bounce back now. That really showed in that Milwaukee series. It kind of all starts with that one Milwaukee game [Game 5].”
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