Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton went nuts Tuesday night, and the Bucks cruised to an impressive Game 2 blowout win over the Boston Celtics, 123–102, in Milwaukee. Giannis devouring puny mortals is expected, but Middleton playing like a bloodthirsty maniac in a crucial playoff game is very, very good news for the Bucks, after their discouraging Game 1 loss.
It wasn’t all those two, of course. Eric Bledsoe rebounded from a putrid series opener; the uninspiring George Hill-Ersan Ilyasova-Pat Connaughton bench trio handily won their minutes; and the Bucks knocked down a franchise playoff record 20 three-pointers, on sizzling 43 percent shooting from deep. But Middleton in particular was just out of his damn mind in this one:
The Bucks made a frankly rude and unreasonable number of closely contested heat-check threes in the first half, when Boston was otherwise the sharper team on both ends. That’s kind of the idea of having Nikola Mirotic and Brook Lopez in the starting lineup—their spot-up looks are deeper, and require less space, and when they’re falling they force the defense to stretch out well beyond the three-point arc. The main culprit, though, was Middleton, who went 5-of-7 from three in the first half, often on well-defended confidence bombs. His scorching shooting kept the Bucks close to Boston, and Milwaukee’s overall willingness to fire away forced the Celtics to rethink their approach to helping off shooters on Giannis drives. The consequence was enough space in the third quarter for Antetokounmpo to get pointed downhill with a head of steam and fewer arms to disrupt his dribble. That is just total hell for an NBA defense.
The Bucks outscored the Celtics by 21 points in the third quarter, 39-18, and turned what had been a close game into a blowout. Middleton and Antetokounmpo played a combined five minutes of the fourth quarter, and the Bucks led by as many as 31 points in the second half.
Some of what happened to Giannis in Game 1 was Al Horford being a defensive beast. But part of what needed to happen for the Bucks to fare better in Game 2—a huge part, in fact—was Giannis just needed to be better in those times when he did get inside Boston’s defense and to the rim. In Game 1 he shot an uncharacteristic and nauseating 4-of-15 from the restricted arc. Horford deserves a ton of credit for bothering him inside, but 15 shots in the restricted arc is a ton—that Giannis was able to get inside so often was in fact an encouraging sign for the Bucks headed into Game 2. Tuesday night Giannis continued to rampage to the front of the rim, where he shot a much more Giannis-like 5-of-9 inside, and many, many more of his drives ended with free-throw attempts. The refs were much tougher on contact inside, and Giannis got to the line for 18 free-throw attempts Tuesday night.
But Giannis’s drives are a lot more likely to create good looks and defensive fouls when the defense has to wait a beat to help, or commit a little bit less to the job of helping, because the other Bucks are raining hellfire. That’s what happened in Game 2—Giannis didn’t get off to an incredible start, but his teammates made enough shots to pull Boston just slightly apart, and Milwaukee’s advantages just cascaded from there.
The Bucks were helped by Kyrie having a nightmare, Russell Westbrook-ian offensive game (nine points on 18 shots in 31 minutes) and Gordon Hayward reverting to early season Gordon Hayward (five points on five shots and a hideous, game-worst minus-30). But the biggest difference in Game 2 was Khris Middleton and the other Bucks shooting with confidence and burying threes consistently enough to scatter and overwhelm Boston’s meticulous defensive game-plan. To grab control of the series, the Bucks just need to, umm, continue to get blistering shooting performances from people not named Giannis Antetokounmpo, so that Boston’s defense will spread out and create space for Giannis to feast. Simple!