Facing the prospect of elimination, the Boston Celtics came out focused in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal match-up with the Milwaukee Bucks and led by as much as 18 points in the third quarter.
Come the opening minutes of the final period, they still had a 14-point advantage, but everyone at the Fiserv Forum knew what was coming next. Just like in their come-from-behind Game 5 win, reigning NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo launched a vicious run to bring the Bucks back into the game.
Antetokounmpo started it off with a thunderous dunk and drew a foul from a helpless Payton Pritchard for a three-point play. On their next possession, he made two more free throws then Pat Connaughton followed it up with a three-pointer that cut Boston’s lead to six, 84-78, with slightly less than 10 minutes remaining in the match.
There was still a lot of basketball to be played and the situation was eerily familiar to that of Game 5 where Milwaukee mounted a late comeback and their raucous crowd could sense it.
However, it was at that point that Jayson Tatum decided to take things into his own hands. He proceeded to score the next 11 points for the Celtics through a dazzling array of jumpers. Antetokounmpo and Connaughton tried to match him shot-for-shot, yet they ultimately fell short.
Tatum’s outburst was enough for Boston to keep the Bucks at arm’s length as they maintained an eight-point lead, 95-87, with 5:40 left in the game. They survived Milwaukee’s best shot and it was then time for the rest of the Celtics to take over and seal the game.
Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart hit back-to-back baskets to bring their lead to 13, 100-87, and it was smooth sailing for them from that point on. Boston picked up a 108-95 win to force a Game 7 at home that promises to be a thrilling finish to this hard-fought series.
The 24-year-old Tatum finished with 46 points, nine rebounds, four assists, and a block as he outdueled Antetokounmpo who had a dominant 44 points, 20 rebounds, six assists, one steal, and two blocks that marked his third game of at least 40 points and 10 rebounds in this series.
In the end though, it was their respective teammates that tilted the balance of the match. Brown had 22 points, five rebounds, four assists, and a block while his backcourt partner Smart tallied 21 points, five rebounds, and seven assists.
Al Horford only managed two points in his 38 minutes of playing time though he had 10 rebounds, three assists, a steal, and four blocks–two of which came in the final period. The 35-year-old has turned back the clock in this series where he has had to fill the void left by their injured starting center Robert Williams.
Meanwhile, Jrue Holiday and Connaughton added 17 and 14 points, respectively, for the Bucks who continue to miss the services of their three-time NBA All-Star forward Khris Middleton. Milwaukee sorely needs his shot creation and the added threat that he imposes on opposing defenses. He has been out since the second game of the first round and no material updates have yet to be made regarding his status for Game 7.
While Middleton’s absence is a major loss for the Bucks, the silver lining has been that it has forced Antetokounmpo to serve as their primary closer. He has responded with a fierce determination and it is inevitable that he will put up another gaudy statline and breathtaking performance in Game 7.
A performance of this magnitude from Antetokounmpo has typically led to an easy Milwaukee victory, but this series is different. Tatum has matched him over the past three games, bouncing back strongly from his disappointing 10-point performance in their Game 3 loss.
He continues to mature into the superstar that he has always been expected to become and a win in Game 7 could prove to be a breakthrough moment for his career. While he has already played in two Eastern Conference Finals, a potential third appearance this year will mark the first one where he is the undisputed first option on this team.
Much is at stake in the upcoming Game 7 of this series, with many pundits favoring the winner to go all the way to the title, and it will also be the much-awaited culmination of this latest chapter in the budding rivalry between two of the league’s brightest young superstars.