MILWAUKEE — When Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca arrived at Fiserv Forum with his team facing elimination in the conference semifinals against the Bucks on Friday, he was tense. He wasn’t sure how to relax, so with less than an hour before tipoff he walked onto the court, picked up a basketball, and started shooting.
“I was just so nervous,” Pagliuca said later. “I needed to do something to loosen up.”
Even though it was rooted in nerves, he was almost a picture of calm, a billionaire owner taking the floor in a road arena and turning it into his own playground before his team took the court later and mostly did the same.
Behind a vintage performance from All-Star Jayson Tatum, the Celtics surged to a big second-half lead, pushed back a Bucks rally, and ensured that their Game 5 collapse would not be replicated, as they kept their season alive with a powerful 108-95 win. Game 7 will be played at TD Garden on Sunday afternoon.
Tatum poured in 16 of his 46 points during the fourth quarter despite playing just over eight minutes, helping Boston overcome another masterpiece by Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“We saw it in his eyes,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “He was aggressive. He was coming to us: ‘Give me the ball.’ And we gave him the ball.”
For Smart, the past two days were misery. He had some costly miscues in the final moments over Boston’s Game 5 collapse at home, and he said he had not slept since then. After that loss, he went back to the team’s practice facility in Brighton by himself and shot jump shots until he felt better.
On Friday, with Fiserv Forum rumbling and the Bucks prepared to ride that early wave, Smart steadied Boston with 14 of his 21 points in the first quarter. He finished the game with seven assists and no turnovers. He said he had done enough to finally get some sleep.
“Those final minutes [of Game 5] ate me alive,” Smart said. “My guys, teammates, coaches, were doing a good job of making sure that I stay as composed as I could and keep my mind right, cause I was really hurt after that.”
In that game, the Celtics coughed up a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and ended the night in stunned silence. In this game, the script was eerily similar.
Boston led by as many as 18 in the third and once again held a 14-point advantage early in the fourth before the Bucks began to charge back behind Antetokounmpo, who finished with 44 points, 20 rebounds, and 6 assists.
The Bucks climbed within 85-81 on an Antetokounmpo 3-pointer from the top of the key with 8:43 left. The arena was rumbling, and the Celtics appeared to be at an inflection point.
But Tatum was resolute. Over a stretch of less than three minutes he hit a tough baseline fadeaway with the shot clock running down, drilled a 3-pointer from the left arc, then hit another baseline jumper and another three, helping Boston push its lead to 95-87. None of the shots appeared to even graze the rim. The lead was never in danger again.
“I think, obviously, I know when I have it going,” Tatum said. “You feel that rhythm. It’s not necessarily about matching what somebody else is doing; it’s just finding your spots, knowing time and score and the situation of the game, being aggressive.”
In the fourth quarter of Game 5, the Celtics offense became bogged down in isolation situations. In Game 6, they were more purposeful as they hunted mismatches against Milwaukee’s screen-switching defense. If Tatum didn’t end up with the matchup he wanted, they pushed for another one and tried again.
And everything was crisp. After falling apart by committing turnovers and surrendering offensive rebounds Wednesday, Boston played a turnover-free fourth in which the Bucks grabbed just one offensive board Friday.
“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 going to make us or break us. I think we showed a lot of toughness and growth coming out here and getting a win on the road and just giving ourselves a chance.”
Antetokounmpo was spectacular for Milwaukee, but that has been the case for most of this series. However, the burden on him appears too great with fellow All-Star Khris Middleton sidelined.
Still, this series has included wild shifts in momentum, with the road team now winning four of the first six games. That should give the Bucks some hope, but it also gives the Celtics good reason to approach this final game with caution.
“I just know that being in the Garden isn’t the place you want to be in a game 7,” Smart said.