BOSTON — With 3:32 left in the fourth quarter of Game 2, Celtics guard Terry Rozier was so wide open on the wing that he had time to gather, take a rhythm dribble and get off a clean look in front of the Bucks bench. Eric Bledsoe didn’t even bother to get back on defense, so Milwaukee’s closest defender was Thon Maker, shouting from the bench behind Rozier.
When Rozier’s shot found nothing but net, giving the C’s a 112-97 lead, he knew like the rest of us that he’d broken the Bucks. Rozier turned to Maker, flexed and returned a few words of encouragement. Both players earned technicals, but only one walked away with his pride in tact.
The Celtics travel to Milwaukee with a two-game lead and their two best players on the mend, despite Giannis Antetokounmpo nearly posting a 30-point triple-double, because they bullied the Bucks at every turn, because Jaylen Brown was the best player on the floor at times with a top-five MVP candidate staring back at him, and because Rozier washed Mini LeBron’s brain.
Seriously, watch Bledsoe warm up, and it’s a wonder he’s not the best point guard in the NBA. He bounces from spot to spot with impeccable footwork, pounding the ball on a string, burying smooth stroke after smooth stroke, muscles upon muscles bulging from his cut-off sweatshirt. Yet, there’s Rozier, making $12.5 million less and working harder for the respect he deserves.
Asked if he takes the challenge of defending Rozier personally after the Celtics guard dropped another 23 points and eight assists on the Bucks — bringing his two-game totals to 46 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds, two steals and a block against zero turnovers — Bledsoe said, “Who?”
“I don’t who the f*** that is,” added Bledsoe.
Rozier faced the media at the podium, reserved only for the game’s top performers, unaware of Bledsoe’s comments. I caught him in the hallway, where he told security on his way back to the locker room, “Too much swag.” But I had about as much success as Bledsoe. He wouldn’t bite.
“I’m not caught up in that,” the third-year Celtics guard told Parquet Post. “I’m all about the Boston Celtics-Milwaukee Bucks matchup. That’s all it is. If he don’t know me, it’s all good.”
C’mon. The Louisville Cardinal had to find it a little funny that Bledsoe — the Kentucky Wildcat he crossed over so bad that the guy just quit to watch Rozier bury a go-ahead 3-pointer with 0.5 seconds left in Game 1 — was pretending not to know the name of his defensive assignment.
“I don’t even find it funny,” added Rozier. “It’s all good. He might be talking out of spite.”
For the vast majority of Bledsoe’s postgame press conference, he tried putting on a brave face, spouting cliches about how the momentum is theirs now that they’re headed to Milwaukee, but you could see behind every word that he was thinking exactly what he said to start the interview.
“Shit,” he said. “We lost.”
The Bucks were defeated. Almost every last one of them.
“They were just the more desperate team tonight again,” said Bucks wing Khris Middleton.
“I think as a team we didn’t show up tonight,” added Antetokounmpo.
“From the jump,” said interim Milwaukee coach Joe Prunty, “they played harder.”
How can that be? How can a seventh-place team already in the hole against the No. 2 seed not be the more desperate team, not show up — not play hard? Because they underestimated these C’s, the version without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. They weren’t prepared to fight.
It doesn’t make sense, since the Bucks feature Antetokounmpo, one of the game’s five best players, and they’re the more veteran-laden team. Then, you remember the Celtics have Brad Stevens, who’s weaponized his team to play with pace and space and to bring your damn game face to this here arms race. The C’s may have lost an alpha, but they’re still a team full of dogs.
Midway through the second quarter, when the Bucks slashed a double-digit lead in half, throwing a counterpunch after getting kicked in the teeth, just as they did in Game 1, Brown went to work. If the C’s couldn’t buy a bucket this time, he was going to earn enough to get one.
Brown drove left against Tony Snell and met a hedging Middleton, so he went right, only to get blocked by Snell. He ripped the rebound from three Bucks and muscled his way back through Snell, Middleton and old friend Tyler Zeller, getting his bucket and forcing a Milwaukee timeout.
He too flexed for the Bucks.
“Jaylen loves the moment,” said Stevens. “He really appreciates the opportunity to compete on this stage and at this level, and we’ve seen him really raise his level in some of the biggest games against the better teams in the league all year. Obviously, he’s gaining more experience by the minute, and he lived quite a lot last year. So, he’s one of our more experienced guys.”
Brown finished with 30 points, matching Giannis and erasing another record from the Boston books, this time unseating Tommy Heinsohn from a perch he’s held for more than 60 years as the youngest Celtic ever to register 30 in a playoff game. This two days after Jayson Tatum joined Heinsohn and Bill Russell as the only C’s to record double-doubles in their playoff debuts.
It made no difference that Tatum failed to get his in Game 2, because the Celtics still somehow come in waves, even with half the rotation on the inactive list. Marcus Morris, Greg Monroe and Shane Larkin all scored in double figures off the bench, joining starters Rozier, Brown and Al Horford in that respect. Even Guerschon Yabusele gave them good minutes before Gino Time.
Just as Rozier badgered Bledsoe and Brown bodied Snell, Morris browbeat Middleton. The Celtics weren’t satisfied knocking Milwaukee down, and they won’t be until they knock them out.
“I’ve been competing with Khris since college when we used to kick their ass at Kansas,” Morris said of Middleton, a Texas A&M alum. “He’s a good player. No hard feelings. I’m coming to play.”
This series may yet turn for the Bucks, but there was an awful lot of, “I don’t think it’s falling on deaf ears,” and, “Hopefully we can go back home and play better,” coming from Milwaukee. Just about the only one in their locker room who realized what’s what was 40-year-old Jason Terry, who’s won a series down 2-0 and lost one up 2-0 in 14 playoff appearances. It’s not over yet, so long as they’re the more desperate team, so long as they show up — so long as they play hard.
“You call that chippiness?” said Terry. “Then I guess we have to turn it up a little bit. … It really hasn’t been as physical as you want it to be, so I guess we have to turn up the physicality.”
Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and the Celtics will be waiting, flexing. Call them by their name.