The Bucks made sure of that by taking care of business on their home floor and evening the series with a 104-102 win in Game 4 on Sunday night.
While the Celtics’ young core responded with a better effort than the dismal output they had in the Game 3 blowout, Milwaukee built up enough of a cushion to fend off a second-half surge.
The Celtics began the contest with much more energy than they did in Game 3, setting a physical tone on defence while being the aggressors on the other end.
But while their renewed energy resulted in a variety of good looks, they couldn’t capitalise by converting makeable shots.
As they failed to create distance on Milwaukee, the Bucks began to settle into the same type of rhythm they had in Game 3 and locked down defensively.
When Milwaukee have been fully engaged on defence in the series, trying to score has been like trying to draw blood from a stone for Boston. They’ve had to work hard over and over just to generate an open shot, especially with Terry Rozier massively in a slump since the series shifted cities.
Rozier’s success – or lack of – has been critical in the series. As Boston’s lead ball-handler, he has the pressure of creating shots and providing scoring whenever he’s on the floor. He once again shot horribly in the first half, aligning with the Celtics’ struggles, before hitting a pair of 3s after the intermission.
From @ESPNStatsInfo:— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) April 22, 2018
The Bucks contested 40 of 43 shots faced in the first half, including seven blocked shots. Celtics shot 24% in paint.
The Celtics scored 2 points on uncontested shots. The Buck had 26 (11 of 13 FG).
The young duo finally appeared to get their feet under them and handled the playoff intensity with aplomb, which will be a promising development for the Celtics when they return home for Game 5.
However, outside of them, Boston had few answers on the offensive end, making their success – like Rozier’s – essential to advancing to the next round.
For the Bucks, it will be interesting to see if they carry the same defensive energy over to Boston, where they were often out of sorts in the first two games.
Milwaukee’s bench stepped up in a major way at home, which is usually the case in the playoffs.
Both these teams are young, so home court could end up making all the difference.
Triple-doubles have become the norm for Russell Westbrook, but it was his counterpart who accomplished the feat to push his team to a 2-1 series lead in a pivotal Game 3.
It was the first time a Jazz player had recorded a triple-double in the playoffs since the John Stockton back in 2001.
“Having my name next to his name is an honor,” Rubio said of Stockton. “I don’t know what else to say. It’s huge. Have huge respect for him, and playing here is great because I know how important a point guard he is for this franchise.”
Ricky Rubio (26 PTS, 11 REB, 10 AST) tallies his 1st career #NBAPlayoffs triple-double, pushing @utahjazz to the win and a 2-1 series lead! #TakeNote— NBA (@NBA) April 22, 2018
(He is the first Utah player to record a triple-double in the postseason since John Stockton in 2001) pic.twitter.com/oIaCB9DKTb
Westbrook, meanwhile, was less than pleased that Rubio got the better of him and vowed to flip the script going forward.
“He made some shots,” Westbrook said. “Too comfortable. But I’m gonna shut that s*** off next game though. Guarantee that.”
It was already known, but Game 3 further cemented that the Thunder can’t lose the Westbrook-Rubio matchup if they want to advance.
While Rubio’s shooting has improved every game in the series – 5-of-18 to 6-of-16 to 9-of-18 – Westbrook’s has declined – 10-of-25 to 7-of-19 to 5-of-17.
A large portion of both players’ shots have come from the mid-range, with the area proving to be key as the Thunder have played off of Rubio, whereas the Rudy Gobert’s presence in the paint has encouraged Westbrook to pull up just before.
After going just 3-of-13 in the mid-range in the first two games, Rubio connected on all five of his shots from the area in Game 3.
Westbrook, on the other hand, was just 1-of-5 from mid-range on Saturday and is 8-of-25 overall in the series.
With neither point guard a major shooting threat, whoever can take advantage of open looks could decide the series.
Assistant coach Ettore Messina will guide the Spurs against the defending champions, who carry a 3-0 lead in the first-round series into Game 4 on Sunday at San Antonio.
Erin Popovich, 67, died Wednesday. She had been married to the long-time Spurs coach and new US national team coach for 40 years.
The Spurs have had to cope with the personal loss as well as their coach’s absence as they face the challenge of Kevin Durant and the Warriors.
“It’s a tough situation,” Messina said Saturday. “But the first thing is to free our minds and realize that if you watch the last game, we had more points in the paint, we had more free throws. We won the boards.
“Against a fantastic team like they are, we know what we’re playing against. Doing everything a little bit better will be the key. I think the team is ready to play and compete. You can’t get frustrated. You’ve got to get back on the court and try to prove everybody wrong.”
No team in NBA history has ever recovered from a 3-0 deficit to advance, something Australian guard Patty Mills knows all too well as he prepares for Game 4.
“We know the history of where we’re at in this situation,” Mills said. “And mentally we have to approach it like we have all season and take one game at a time.
“The vibe is still there to do what we want. It’s another character test like we have tested all year. We’re grinding out there. Our effort has been great.”
Spurs star LaMarcus Aldridge says the team has to stay aggressive.
“We’ve just got to go get it, leave it all out there, do things better and bring the confidence,” he said.