With momentum and health (relatively speaking, of course) back on their side, the Celtics are in Milwaukee for tonight's Game 6 against the Bucks.
The hope is that their return trip home will be filled with thoughts of the Philadelphia 76ers and a Game 1 back in Boston.
After losing two in Milwaukee to even up the series, the Celtics looked like a much more competitive team in Game 5, Marcus Smart's return after missing the last 15 regular season games and first four playoff games.
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Whether it was diving for those 50-50 loose balls, getting out on the break, or limiting Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, the C's jumped out to an early double-digit lead and staved off a late Bucks run to take a pivotal 3-2 series lead.
One thing we've all seen in this series so far: As important as Antetokounmpo is, he can't do it all himself. Bucks sharpshooter Khris Middleton has been just that, a sharpshooter — and basically the only one on that team. But the rest of the Bucks? A mixed bag of inconsistent play.
Many thought that if the C's allowed Antetokounmpo to get his, they could limit the rest of his team and still succeed. That's been true to an extent, but on the random game where a player like Eric Bledsoe looks somewhat competent, or Thon Maker turns into Hakeem Olajuwon, you run into problems.
But in Game 5, the C's inserted strong defender Semi Ojeleye into the starting lineup, moved Al Horford to center, and got 25 minutes out of Marcus Smart off the bench. The result? Just ten field goal attempts from Antetokounmpo, who finished with 16 points.
You can bet the Bucks will look to get him involved more tonight, while the C's work to prevent it.
“I think [Antekounmpo] gets bodied quite a bit," Bucks head coach Joe Prunty said. "I’m concerned about how much they’re pushing. I want him to keep attacking, regardless of how physical the game may be, but in the grand scheme of things, I’ll just say it’s on all of us."
The Celtics did not look particularly good in either of their two losses in Milwaukee. OK, they looked downright putrid in Game 3 and rather uninspiring until it was too late in Game 4. But they also didn't have Smart. His style of play is contagious, and you could see how the C's responded in Game 5.
"It’s why you can’t – like you can look at stat sheets all you want; with Marcus it just doesn’t tell the story," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said. "It’s – it’s his energy, it’s his emotion, it’s little plays that turn out to be game-changing plays like diving on the floor and flipping it to Al. The blocks, you know coming over when Shabazz Muhammad was really rolling and going up vertically and challenging his shot, making him miss. Like, those are huge plays.”
With Kyrie Irving out, the C's need more plays like that from Smart if they want to close out the series tonight. An elimination game brings on the added pressure not brought on by themselves and the opponent. So how does the mentality change in a closeout game?
"It doesn't. We have the same mentality we have [Tuesday night]," Smart said. "Only difference is we have part of our team back with me here and we have a little momentum an confidence that we didn't have in those last two games. Nothing changes. Our mentality is the same. We go in and we play this game like it's our last one in Game 6."