The Celtics led by three points yesterday when Giannis Antetokounmpo inbounded to Khris Middleton 35 feet away from the basket with five-tenths of a second left in regulation.
Middleton’s smooth, easy release found net at the buzzer, and the Celtics collectively groaned. Overtime? Overtime despite Terry Rozier’s apparent game-winning 3 a half-second earlier? After he baked Eric Bledsoe with a crossover before draining it?
“I think everybody probably thought the game was over with 0.5 left,” said Marcus Morris. “We guarded the 3-point line, he got a long 3 and made it. Like I said, it’s the playoffs. You have to get back to it. The coaches did a great job getting our minds off of it and continuing to play.”
Their memories properly scrubbed, the Celtics, one of the best escape ensembles in the NBA, snuck out another one with a 113-107 overtime win over Milwaukee in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.
“We just take a deep breath,” Jaylen Brown said. “Brad said it was good and he got it off, it was behind us at that point. Now, we got to focus on overtime and that’s what we did.”
The C’s may be streakier than one of Bill Walton’s tie-dye T-shirts, and they certainly suffered in one of their most drought-ridden second quarters of the season. But their early offensive troubles aside, five Celtics scored 19 or more points, including Al Horford’s double-double of 24 points with 12 rebounds. Rookie Jayson Tatum had 19 points and 10 rebounds in his playoff debut.
The C’s thus survived a pair of explosive 30-plus performances from Antetokounmpo and Middleton — the former with 35 points and 13 rebounds, and the latter with 31 points, including five 3-pointers.
But Rozier, after getting off to a slow start, came back to make even bigger plays with eight overtime points that included another 3-pointer and 5-for-6 shooting from the line over the last 18.8 seconds.
He finished with 23 points, hit a team-high four 3-pointers, and threw more weight behind his nickname — Scary Terry. And like Rozier, everyone in green once again put their best work on the floor late.
The Celtics also survived a 26-4 second-quarter run by the Bucks that fed, in part, off three straight Shane Larkin turnovers.
“That was part of our plan, to kind of lull them into a false sense of security, never attack the paint, just throw it to the other team and let them score whenever they want,” cracked Brad Stevens. “We thought maybe that would wear them out. Turns out it didn’t look like a good plan, so we had to readjust, make those hard halftime adjustments, throw it to our team, and try to do what we did in the first quarter.”
Then came overtime.
The Bucks took a 105-104 lead on a Malcolm Brogdon drive with three minutes left, but Horford, drawing Antetokounmpo’s fifth foul, gave the C’s a 106-105 lead from the line with 2:10 left.
Tatum saved the next possession when he rebounded Rozier’s missed 3, then slashed into the paint with a reverse layup.
Tatum was also tied up by Antetokounmpo while rebounding a deep Middleton miss. The Greek won the tap, was fouled by Rozier, inbounded, was fouled again, and with 53.6 seconds left hit only the first of two.
This time Tatum was fouled skying for the rebound. The rookie threw the ball away down the other end, but made up for it by getting back down the floor to block Brogdon. Tony Snell ended the possession with a missed 3.
Horford grabbed the board, and with 18.8 seconds left Rozier hit two from the line for a 110-106 lead.
Antetokounmpo, fouled on a drive by Horford, hit the first, missed the second, and fouled out when he grabbed Rozier on a rebound attempt. The Bucks forward ran across the floor pumping his fist in protest.
Rozier missed the second of two, but Middleton missed on a drive. Rozier put the game out of reach with two free throws with 4.4 seconds left.
“I was mad as hell that he made that shot, number one,” Rozier said of Middleton’s game-tying bomb. “But we knew it’s a battle. It’s the playoffs. It happens. He hit a crazy shot, especially with 0.5 (seconds), so you know that’s tough.
“(But) going into overtime, let’s do it. Let’s stay together and let’s win this game. You get to the huddle and people were upset a little bit, because you wanted to go home and wrap up Game 1. But you’re still living in the moment. You have to fight and that’s what we did. We had each other’s back and we never stopped believing that we were going to win and we did what we have to do in overtime.”