MILWAUKEE — The look on Boston Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck’s face was fitting — half disgust and half heartburn — as he listened to veteran referee Sean Wright explain a crucial call in the final seconds of his team’s bitter Game 3 semifinal loss Saturday.
The Celtics were seenthing at the way the Milwaukee Bucks had extracted the 103-101 victory to take a 2-1 series lead. Celtics coach Ime Udoka stormed into his office and immediately wanted to see the replay of Marcus Smart’s 3-point attempt with 4.9 seconds that officials deemed a “rip through” move that was ruled a two-shot foul and not the three Boston needed to tie the game.
“He got crowded on the way up,” Udoka deadpanned. “Bad missed call.”
“Wouldn’t make sense for me to do a rip-through move on the 3-point line when you got a clear shot for three when you are down three,” Smart lamented.
But as the two sides broke down the video frame by frame — “It looked like he was still facing the sidelines. That’s not a shooting motion,” said Bucks guard Jrue Holiday, who committed the foul — no one was paying attention to where Jayson Tatum was.
When the Celtics calm down, and Sunday’s forthcoming two-minute report might reveal some other whistles that could’ve/should’ve gone their way, the Tatum aspect of this game will come into a clearer view.
This is a tight series that already has the fingerprints of a developing classic. The Bucks are elated they’re up despite missing Khris Middleton, out with a knee injury — and it’s because of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
But for the Celtics to hit back, and get three more wins in this grinder, Tatum cannot fade to the corner and be a spectator, like he was on the final play, and all too often in Game 3.
The dual chess match surrounding Antetokounmpo could yield a Netflix miniseries. The Celtics collapse on him; then they back off him; Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer changes his starting lineup to get him more space; then oddly uses his challenge on a Giannis block/charge call in the first quarter — in part to apply pressure to the referees going forward. And on and on.
Antetokounmpo is unrelenting, and what he does decides the game. He spent the three days between Games 2 and 3 stewarding about his subpar Game 2 showing and roared back with a 42-point, 12-rebound, 8-assist masterpiece. It was an MVP-level performance.
Tatum’s résumé is not Antetokounmpo’s and he doesn’t have a shelf of gold trophies. But he has the talent and the drive to do it someday.
The three-time All-Star was probably the Eastern Conference’s best player over the past two months, and if he wasn’t, it was at least an argument to be had. There’s a chance Tatum could join Antetokounmpo on the All-NBA First Team this season, and even if he falls short, Tatum is the kind of two-way dominant force who makes a difference in high-value playoff games.
He hit a game winner in the playoff opener against Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets, and in this series, his dominating 29-point performance in Game 2 held off a second-half charge by Antetokounmpo. It was exactly the kind of game a leading star delivers in must-win contests.
But Saturday he was a wallflower. He was 4-of-19, with Bucks wing Wesley Matthews harassing him and refusing to let him get angles or clean looks. Case in point: Tatum finished 0-for-10 when Matthews was the primary defender, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Bad shooting games happen, of course, but can’t happen for Tatum if the Celtics’ playoff run is going to lead to the Finals.
The Celtics got tremendous play in the fourth quarter from Jaylen Brown and Al Horford. If Tatum makes even two or three plays, it’s 2-1 Boston, even on a dreadful shooting night.
But he didn’t, and that’s what is hard to accept because of the standard he has set this season — right down to that last play, on which Smart was heaving the ball and begging for a whistle as Tatum watched the play break down and did nothing to rescue his team.
“Today was just a one-off where I was thinking a little too much,” Tatum said. “Knowing they were going to give me a lot of attention, I passed up some open looks that I should’ve shot.”
Udoka said Tatum got off his game from the start, dribbling into crowds and letting himself get flustered, adding that he could see indecision in his star’s body language as the game unfolded. Even as Antetokounmpo was firing body blows and power dunks, Tatum was sliding back on his heels.
His teammates saw it too. Brown took the wheel and scored 15 points in the fourth, while Horford had 12. Tatum made one basket and took two shots and the Celtics ended up two points short.
Tatum is only 24 years old. This performance might not even define this 72-hour period for him. But the bar has been raised. Tatum is better than what he showed Saturday and the Celtics need the lesson learned.
“I mean, obviously I expect to play better,” Tatum said. “I gotta be better. I know that and my teammates know that and I’m sure I will be.”