The Milwaukee Bucks did not have enough to finish off the Boston Celtics in Game 6 at home on Friday. Just like in the Bucks’ win on Wednesday night in Boston, they were down double digits going into the fourth quarter after a third-quarter Celtics run. The Celtics would extend the lead early in the fourth, but this time the Bucks could not stem the tide.
When the Bucks cut the lead to four early in the quarter, Jayson Tatum — who was spectacular, pouring in 46 points in an elimination game on the road — pushed the lead back to seven with a 3-pointer and the Celtics went on another run. Down double digits, the Bucks gave one final push to try and eliminate the Celtics, but consecutive threes by Tatum and Jaylen Brown would prove to be too much for the home team to overcome. The Bucks could not get the deficit back under double digits for the final five minutes of play.
On Wednesday, the Bucks limited offense — without All-Star Khris Middleton — stole the luck from Lucky and went on a tear to recover from a 14-point deficit early in the fourth quarter. Giannis Antetokounmpo made it clear that he is the best player in the NBA in that game by scoring 40 points and making a late 3-pointer to reduce the deficit to one possession with less than two minutes remaining in the game. Shortly after, Bobby Portis would make what would be the game-winning basket after grabbing an offensive rebound off an Antetokounmpo miss at the free-throw line to finally give the Bucks the lead. However, without Pat Connaughton, those memorable plays never happen.
As a reserve, Connaughton didn’t play 30 minutes in a single game against the Chicago Bulls in the first round. But without Middleton, and against the best defense in the NBA, his offense has been critical for the Bucks to not only survive in this series, but win two games on the road. He has played 30-plus minutes every game since Game 3, and is averaging the fourth-most minutes on the Bucks in this series behind only Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, and Wesley Matthews.
Connaughton is only averaging 11.7 points per game, but he is a threat that requires attention from the Celtics’ defense. He is a strong finisher at the rim, and is also a 3-point shooter that the Bucks badly need for floor spacing. He’s shooting 58.7 percent from the field and 50 percent from three in this series. In Game 5, of the three 3-pointers that he hit, two came in the fourth quarter. One was to stop the Celtics’ run that put the Bucks down 14 points, and the other got the deficit under double digits where it would stay for the rest of the game.
Also, that whole “role players shoot better on the road than they do at home” theory doesn’t quite work for Connaughton in this series, because he is at home in TD Garden. Connaughton is from Arlington, Mass. — six miles north of Boston. He played in a state tournament game on that floor. What might be considered hostility to some from the Celtics’ home crowd is a love language for Connaughton.
As well as he has played in this series, the Bucks have to find a way to get him even more involved in the offense. He has only scored no more than 13 points in this series, and made no more than three 3-pointers in a game. If Mike Budenholzer decides to bring him off of the bench again, he needs to get him involved in the offense early and often.
Set Connaughton up for some easy cuts and layups. Holiday and Antetokounmpo need to look for him in transition and get him a dunk or two to get him feeling comfortable like he’s watching a New England Patriots game on a Sunday with the old crew.
Then set him up for threes, over, and over, and over again. If he ends this game with 12 attempts, it’s fine. If he attempts 15 threes, that’s fine as well. The Bucks have to make life as easy as possible for Antetokounmpo in the paint throughout the game, to make sure that he has the energy to finish off the Celtics one more time without the other member of the Bucks’ All-Star duo.
Connaughton has been arguably the most important role player for the Bucks in this series. For them to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, he’s gonna have to channel that St. John’s Preparatory School energy to take on a much bigger one.