Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum put on performances for the ages on Friday night in their 108-95 victory as the two All-Stars each eclipsed the 40-point plateau as the Boston Celtics forced a do-or-die Game 7 matchup against Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday afternoon at TD Garden.
Tatum was fantastic for the Celtics on a night where they needed him to be as he saved his best performance of the series for an elimination game on the road in what can easily be described as a hostile environment. Tatum edged out Giannis for a game-high 46 points to go along with nine rebounds and four assists. While his effort came in a loss, Antetokounmpo was dominant finishing the game with 44 points to go along with an astonishing 20 rebounds and six assists.
Game 7 is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET on Sunday with ABC handling the national broadcast.
Here are three key takeaways from the game:
1. Tatum delivers one of the best performances of his career
Jayson Tatum has not always been at his best in this series, but great players don’t let bad games or bad stretches define them. And Tatum has shown this season, and on Friday night in particular, that he is indeed a great player. With the Celtics’ season on the line, he stepped up and delivered one of the best performances of his career.
He got off to a hot start, knocking down two 3-pointers in the first few minutes to help the Celtics open up an early lead, but his best and most important work came in the fourth quarter. Once up by 18, the Celtics’ lead had been trimmed to four with 8:42 to play, and the flashbacks from Game 5 were kicking in. Tatum made sure there would not be a second straight collapse.
First, an incredible fadeaway jumper on the baseline to beat the shot clock. Next, a pull-up 3-pointer right in George Hill’s face. Then he repeated the sequence with another fadeaway and another 3. Over a three-minute span he scored 10 straight points for the Celtics and pushed the lead back to eight to give them some breathing room. The Bucks would never get closer.
“Yeah, obviously he hit some big ones throughout the game,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “Did that and made the right play as well… Huge night by him, we definitely needed it.”
Tatum had 16 points in the fourth quarter alone, and finished the night with 46, nine rebounds and four assists on 17-of-32 from the field. Tatum’s 46 points were the second-most in franchise history when facing elimination, and he joined Sam Jones as the only other Celtic to have multiple 45-point playoff games.
“That’s why he gets paid the big bucks,” Marcus Smart said. “He went into another mode right there. We seen it in his eyes. He was aggressive, he was coming telling us ‘give me the ball.’ We gave him the ball. He asked for it and that’s what we’re gonna do. Like I said, that’s why he gets paid the big bucks.”
Jayson Tatum is still only 24 years old. He has a decade or more and possibly hundreds of playoff games ahead of him. It’s going to be hard for him to play a better one than he did on Friday night.
2. Giannis’ Herculean effort was not enough
The Bucks were already a top-heavy team before Khris Middleton went down with an MCL sprain in the first round against the Chicago Bulls, and without him the problem is even more pronounced. His absence has forced Giannis Antetokounmpo to take on a somewhat ridiculous burden, and attempt to carry the Bucks by himself.
At times in this series he’s been able to do just that; the Bucks have won three games, after all. But even the best players can’t always do it on their own, as Giannis and the Bucks found out during Game 6.
Giannis was brilliant. He scored 17 points in the first quarter to keep the Bucks in the game despite the Celtics’ strong start, and kept attacking all night long. There was little the Celtics could do to slow him down, as he powered his way to the paint for thunderous slams and trips to the free throw line.
“Giannis has been great for them,” Jaylen Brown said. “Relentless in his approach. He’s gonna keep going, keep attacking. His conditioning is great, it doesn’t seem like he gets as tired as others. He just keeps coming.”
The Greek Freak ended with 44 points, 20 rebounds and six assists, shot 14-of-15 from the free-throw line and become the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in 2001 to have a 40-20 game in the playoffs.
Giannis had an astounding 45.2 percent usage rate — his highest ever in a playoff game — and scored or assisted on 52 of the Bucks’ 95 points. It was a truly Herculean effort, and it wasn’t enough. Jrue Holiday and Pat Connaughton were the only other players to score in double figures, but neither chipped in more than 17 points. The Bucks have missed Middleton throughout the series, but never more so than Game 6.
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3. Celtics show resolve after Game 5 collapse
The Celtics should have been coming to Milwaukee to close out the series on Friday night. Instead, they were the ones facing elimination after a late collapse in Game 5 that saw them blow a 13-point fourth-quarter lead at home. Recovering from a heartbreaking defeat like that takes a tremendous amount of resolve, self-belief mental toughness.
After staving off elimination on the road, it’s clear the Celtics have all the above.
“I think just kind of how much it stung, losing that game like that,” Jayson Tatum said. “Everybody had a bad taste in their mouth. Watching film, learning from it and the eagerness — we were upbeat. We weren’t defeated, knowing that we still had an opportunity to save our season and come in here and get a win. We believed that, we truly did. we believed in each other and it showed tonight.”
The job is far from done. Beating the best player in the world for a second straight game to eliminate the defending champs will not be easy, and the Celtics will have to regroup again for Game 7 at home on Sunday. Still, a performance like the one on Friday night says a lot about the character of this group.
“This was a big moment for all of us,” Tatum said. “For myself and the team, just how we would respond. Losing Game 5 was gonna make us or break us. We showed a lot of toughness and growth coming out here and getting a win on the road.”