MILWAUKEE — As the referees made their way to the monitor to review the final play of regulation, a replay popped up on the big screen inside of Fiserv Forum which showed Al Horford’s fingertips were still in contact with the ball when the red light came on. The raucous crowd erupted, and the celebration was on before crew chief Zach Zarba could officially declare the Milwaukee Bucks had won Game 3 of their second-round series with the Boston Celtics, 103-101.
Saturday’s showdown was many things: physical, dramatic, and controversial. At times it resembled an ECW Street Fight match more than an actual basketball game. But ultimately, it was a Bucks win, as they wrestled – literally – control of the series away from the Celtics.
Now up 2-1, the Bucks are just two wins away from a second straight trip to the Eastern Conference finals, and third appearance in four seasons. To get there, they’ll need more defensive performances like the one they put together in Game 3, as they held the Celtics to 36.8 percent shooting and an 82.4 offensive rating in the halfcourt, per Cleaning The Glass.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of their effort was holding Jayson Tatum to 10 points on 4-of-19 shooting from the field. Tatum’s playoff lows for points, field goal percentage and free throw attempts all came in this game. It was also tied for his second-lowest scoring output all season, and the first time since March 30 that he failed to make a 3-pointer. In short, Tatum got locked up.
“[Wesley Matthews] takes on the majority of that assignment, Jrue [Holiday] takes him some and those two guys’ individual pride, individual defensive abilities are pretty special and unique,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said. “And then the defense of the team around them. Brook, Giannis, the activity, the competitiveness was in a good place.”
Less than two minutes into the game, Matthews set the tone. He snuck under a screen to cut off Tatum’s drive and forced the Celtics’ star to give the ball up. Then, when Tatum tried to post up, Matthews pushed him off his spot, stood his ground and forced an awful turnaround fadeaway.
Late in the fourth quarter, after the Celtics went on a 20-9 run to cut the deficit to one, Matthews was at it again with his most impressive individual possession against Tatum. He fought through a screen, cut off one drive then another, forced a spin and stayed on his feet to get a contest after being knocked off balance.
Those are the moments that stand out. The one-on-one battles where every single person watching is zeroed in on that specific action. There’s no confusion, no deeper knowledge of the game necessary to understand just how much Matthews is making Tatum work to even get off a shot.
Nearest defender stats aren’t always perfect, but they do mean something, especially when you get ones like Tatum being 0-for-10 when Matthews was the primary defender.
“He was unbelievable,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “He was unbelievable. Kept him in front, showing bodies, crowding as much as possible, making him take tough shots. He was unbelievable.”
But as incredible as it was at times, Matthews’ isolation defense wasn’t the only reason Tatum had one of the least efficient games of his postseason career. The veteran did plenty of work off the ball and early in possessions that often went unnoticed to set himself up for success.
Take this play early in the third quarter, for example. The Celtics had Tatum bring the ball up the floor, so Matthews started pressuring him near midcourt and made him pass the ball. A few seconds later, Marcus Smart turned it over. Matthews won’t get a steal or a contested shot for that. Most probably didn’t even notice it, but he helped his team.
All night long, Matthews (and Holiday) were physical with Tatum. They picked him up early, bumped him off his spots and made him work just to get around the court, let alone try and score. Ironically, it’s similar to what Tatum and Co. did to Kevin Durant with much success in the first round.
“It’s the game within the game,” Holiday said. “Sometimes you might be top side, sometimes you might be trailing him. You just want to give him different looks. Somebody who’s a prolific scorer, somebody who can go off at any time, you have to give them different looks. Not only myself, but Wes did a great job on him. Giving him no space, making everything tough, try to keep him off the free throw line as much as possible.”
Matthews and the Bucks did their job on Saturday, and if they replicate this performance on Monday, they’ll have a chance to grab a commanding 3-1 series lead. But All-NBA players like Tatum don’t go quietly, and he’ll be back with a vengeance. If he delivers a big night, the Celtics can make it 2-2 and steal homecourt advantage right back.
“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.”