BOSTON — All that remained in the visiting coaches’ locker room as TD Garden closed for the night were two empty bottles of expensive red wine and a stack of paper cups, a fitting reward for the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks, who just submitted a comeback win in ways both exquisite and proletarian.
The Bucks trailed for 23 minutes and 49 seconds in the second half of Game 5 in their Eastern Conference semifinals series against the tough and talented Boston Celtics. They were down 14 points with 10 minutes remaining, and they were losing in the final minute for the fourth time in as many games. Yet, they snatched a 110-107 victory from the jaws of defeat to take a 3-2 series lead home to Milwaukee for Friday’s Game 6.
Because that is what champions do.
“We always give everything we have. I don’t think there’s any time we go back to the locker room after a game and say, ‘We didn’t play hard enough,'” said Giannis Antetokounmpo. “…The effort from us is always there. Sometimes we might not look like we’re going to win the game, but we just keep playing for 48 minutes.”
The Bucks tore the heart from the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of the 2021 NBA Finals when Jrue Holiday stole the game-winning attempt from Devin Booker and found Antetokounmpo on an alley-oop for the ages. Holiday did the same to the Celtics twice in the final eight seconds on Wednesday, blocking Marcus Smart’s layup and picking the Defensive Player of the Year’s pocket to prevent Boston’s last two chances.
“He’s a winner,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, whose team traded a cache of assets for Holiday in 2020. “Jrue Holiday is a winner. You ask any player in this league, any coach in this league: He’s a winner.”
There was no dunk on the other end to twist the knife this time around. The dagger came a few seconds earlier, when Antetokounmpo’s missed free throw bounced off the hands of both Smart and Jaylen Brown and into those of Bobby Portis, whose put-back bunny gave the Bucks their fist lead in forever, 108-107.
“Growing up as a kid, I really wasn’t ever skilled or had one thing that I really did well,” said Portis, who grabbed seven of his 15 rebounds on the offensive end. “I was always a jack of all trades, did everything good but nothing great. One thing I always did was have a high motor. Big energy. My mom always told me as a kid to be a garbage man. Being a garbage man, if you want scoring opportunities, if you’re not getting the ball, you go get the ball on the offensive glass, and that’s one thing that my mom always taught me.”
No title is won without luck, but the Bucks made theirs. They grabbed 17 offensive rebounds to keep close a game they had no business winning. They made all six of their fourth-quarter 3-pointers to erase a five-possession deficit that felt double that. And they have Antetokounmpo, the reigning Finals MVP whose contagious relentlessness is as inspiring as the 40 points he dropped on the league’s top-rated defense.
They do not hand out championships in the NBA. You have to take them. In this pivotal game of a series that increasingly looks like it will produce the East’s representative in the Finals, the Bucks seized control.
“We gave it away,” said Brown. “Credit Milwaukee. They played hard for 48 minutes.”
It would have been easy for the Bucks to concede the last 10 minutes to Boston, turn their faith to tying the series at home and take their chances in a Game 7. You need look no further than the three other Game 5s across the conference semifinals . The home teams won by 30, 35 and 39. That is not Milwaukee’s way.
The Bucks’ way is in the work. Antetokounmpo came from the streets of Greece to become the best player alive. Holiday canvassed on mediocre teams for a decade before Milwaukee invested in his ethics. Portis and Pat Connaughton were released from their previous teams and made available to anyone for league minimum. Wesley Matthews, a 13-year veteran of seven teams, was still looking for work at the start of December.
Together, they scored all of Milwaukee’s final 44 points, including all 33 in the final stanza, enough to hand the Celtics their first loss in franchise history when leading by nine or more points to start of the fourth quarter.
The heart of these champions is still beating, and they celebrated breaking Boston’s with some fine wine.
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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach