Coming into the Eastern Conference semifinals versus the Boston Celtics, the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks looked vulnerable.
Khris Middleton, arguably their second-best player, was expected to miss the entire series with a sprained MCL, and against a team with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, it looked like the injury was a death knell for the Bucks.
But instead, they responded by getting gritty against Boston.
Now, the Bucks hold a 3-2 lead over the Celtics, and they have done it not by putting up style points, but by out-hustling and out-muscling Boston, while also playing smarter.
Simply put, the Bucks are reminding everyone how and why they won the world title last summer, and how and why they might do so again next month.
Milwaukee Has Been Winning With Defense
The Celtics were the NBA’s hottest team in the second half of the regular season, and they got it done with a suffocating defense.
They finished the season ranked second in defensive rating and first in points allowed, and in the first round of the playoffs, they made Kevin Durant, possibly one of the 15-20 greatest players ever, look old and washed-up.
But in the Eastern Conference semifinals, at least so far, the Bucks have given Boston a taste of its own medicine.
They started by holding Boston to 89 points and 33.3 percent shooting in Game 1, something that is very hard to accomplish, especially against a very good team like the Celtics.
Milwaukee also put the clamps on the Celtics in Game 3, limiting them to 101 points and 36.8 percent shooting from the field.
In each of the Celtics’ three losses, Tatum has played very poorly, much as Durant did in the prior series.
Although he scored 34 points in Game 5 on Wednesday, he shot just 12-of-29 overall and 2-of-11 from 3-point land.
Big man Al Horford, who exploded for 30 points in Boston’s Game 4 win, only managed eight points in 41 minutes.
Many fans have claimed that today’s NBA is soft and that teams do not play any real defense anymore.
But these playoffs, and in particular this series, is proof that those fans are sorely wrong about those claims.
Milwaukee Has Made Winning Plays In Winning Time
Many, if not most, playoff games are decided in the last several minutes, and in this series, the Bucks have made more big plays than the Celtics.
In Game 3, trailing by one point, Giannis Antetokounmpo scored a layup to put the Bucks ahead, and they forced Brown to miss a layup, which was followed by a mid-range jumper by Jrue Holiday for a three-point lead.
Then, after Celtics guard Marcus Smart was fouled and missed the second of two free throws, the Bucks prevented three different Celtics players from converting put-back attempts, thus preserving the victory.
— NBA (@NBA) May 7, 2022
Down the stretch of Game 5, a flurry of big plays by Antetokounmpo and Holiday at both ends of the floor erased a sizable Boston lead and gave Milwaukee a 110-107 win.
WHAT A FINISH 🤯
— NBA TV (@NBATV) May 12, 2022
These are the gutsy plays that add up to the biggest wins come playoff time.
They are also the plays that put world championship rings on fingers.