The Miami Heat must have been sitting around Friday night with ice clinking in cool drinks, keeping tabs on this brutally physical playoff series and rooting for it to go on and on. And on.
Because, really, will the eventual victor have anything left to face the Heat on Tuesday?
First things first.
Boston and Milwaukee have pushed this Eastern Conference semifinal series to a Game 7, and it has been a punch for punch contest from beginning to end. Most playoff matchups look like that, but Miami, the No. 1 seed, already has clinched its conference finals berth and has the advantage of waiting and watching the Bucks and Celtics duke it out.
And duke it out they have. Both teams are so good and stocked with prideful players, what is left in the tank for Game 7? And beyond?
It’s a big-picture question that will be answered later. For now, the Bucks have to recover while traveling to Boston for a third time in two weeks.
“Not to make any excuses — I’m not the guy to make excuses,” Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said Friday night. “But we’ve played without Khris (Middleton).
“And I believe, as a team, like, we gave everything we had in six games. I haven’t seen, in one of the six games that we played, that I went home and was like, ‘We didn’t give enough effort.’ The effort is always there and hopefully the effort is there in Game 7.”
Three Celtics (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart) and two Bucks (Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday) played 40 minutes or more in Boston’s 108-95 Game 6 win Friday night at Fiserv Forum. That’s just an example of the all-out effort. The physical toll has shown itself in several areas for both teams at different times.
The Bucks trailed 53-43 at halftime and didn’t look particularly sharp, shooting 37%, although some of that is just due to the fact Boston has such a smothering defense. And in the second half, Boston’s Grant Williams and Antetokounmpo continued to play with four and five fouls, respectively, with the officials seemingly not wanting to be the whistle that determined the game.
Game 6 was just a sequel to Games 1-5.
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Antetokounmpo got off to a ridiculously hot start — his 3-pointer tied the game at 17-17 — and he shot 4-of-5 from the field and 6-of-6 on free throws. Milwaukee rode his 44-point, 20-rebound wave all the way.
But the Celtics would not relent.
The Bucks got good production from Brook Lopez early, but mostly could only count on Holiday and Antetokounmpo for scoring until Pat Connaughton warmed up in the third quarter.
And as usual, in the last three games especially, the game got more physical as the minutes wore on.
But this series has become known for a few things more than that.
Defense by both clubs has wreaked havoc on shooting percentages.
And, in particular, the Celtics’ defense has disrupted the Bucks’ transition game. In Milwaukee’s stunning Game 1 win at Boston, the Bucks had 28 fastbreak points. Boston made a point of cutting those down, although the Bucks did have 15 on Friday night. But how much is enough?
“As many as possible,” Holiday said. “Honestly, as many as possible. That’s kind of how you beat meeting that switch. You get stops, you grab the ball, start to run the ball and try to beat them before they can get their defense up.
“Everything is tougher when you’re tired. Absolutely, everything is tougher when you’re tired. That’s no excuse for either team. We’re down a man, a big piece, but we still got here. We’ve got a chance to close it out so, come Sunday, I think we’ll all be ready.”
There were a few notable absences in Game 6.
The spry George Hill, who still played hard but didn’t look like the 2019 version.
Would Jevon Carter have made any difference defending Tatum? His benching is a coach’s decision. Carter hasn’t played since Game 2, since Hill returned healthy.
When is the last time we saw Splash Mountain? Lopez is 0-for-7 from 3-point range in the series. He’s obviously not a big-time 3-point shooter, but he catches defenses off-guard with a soft shooting touch from distance in most games.
Scoring from Bobby Portis off the bench; he had four points.
And of course, forward Khris Middleton, who has missed nine playoff games since injuring his knee in Game 2 of the Bucks’ opening playoff series against Chicago.
And yet no one can fault any effort. Respect has to be given to Boston’s defense.
“At the end of the day, no matter what happens, you grow from it,” Antetokounmpo said. “I remember 2018, we went to Boston and lost Game 7. Did not have the best game possible … but you learn from it.
“You learn what the atmosphere is like, when the ball gets heavy. So no matter what happens, we learn and we’re going to get better.”
Since then, the Bucks have won enough games in Boston to feel confident they can win Game 7 on Sunday.
“We enjoy playing on the road,” Lopez said. “You know, it’s a typical us against the world mentality. I think we like playing there because the Garden has great energy. It’s a great environment. It should be a great Game 7.”
Follow Lori Nickel on Twitter @LoriNickel.