“Another hard-fought game, physical game. Found a way to close it out. They made their run in the third, carried it over in the fourth, but like I said, we found a way to close it out. 2-2, headed to Boston.”
That’s how Bucks interim coach Joe Prunty opened his press conference on Sunday following Milwaukee’s 104-102 win over the Celtics. Heading back to Boston for a Game 5 was always part of the plan for the Bucks in terms of winning the series.
After the first two games in Boston, primarily the blowout loss in Game 2, a return trip to Boston wasn’t guaranteed. When the Bucks lost by 14 points, it seemed as if all chance of Milwaukee advancing to the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals for the first time since 2001 was gone. That Tuesday night it was difficult picturing the Bucks winning a game, nevertheless the next two.
One week later the Bucks will be back in the same building as they were when trying to explain the 14-point loss, this time, they’ll be playing their biggest game of the season. Every game moving forward for Milwaukee becomes the biggest of the year. That’s no secret.
So, what exactly changed between Tuesday night’s loss and Monday morning’s flight back to Boston with a 2-2 split?
The role players off the bench certainly played better in Milwaukee than Boston, which is to be expected. The opposite can be said for Boston’s role players. Sure, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford still put on strong performances. But Terry Rozier and Shane Larkin, two players that played integral roles in the first two games, were unable to elevate their performances on the road.
It’s fair to wonder if Jabari Parker, Matthew Dellavedova, and Thon Maker will be able to replicate their play in Boston. Parker was nearly unplayable in the first two games of the series, and Dellavedova and Maker combined to play a total of less than six minutes.
After the past two games, it’s known that Dellavedova and Maker will both be on the floor plenty in Game 5 in Boston.
Maker has fed off the energy provided by the crowd at home in the past couple of games. He won’t have that benefit in Boston. In fact, Maker may not exactly be the most well-liked player when he steps on the floor on Tuesday night. He was involved in a tie up with Boston center Aron Baynes that will certainly be remembered by Celtics fans.
Dellavedova isn’t a player that should have to worry about being intimidated by the daunting Boston crowd. He’s one of two players on the roster to be the owner of a championship ring. Dellavedova has played in more big moments than everyone on the roster, except for maybe Jason Terry.
Parker, however, was an entirely different player at home than on the road. There’s no real concrete reason why that was the case, either.
“We’ve been saying from the beginning that we need him. He is one of the best scorers in the league and one of the best players. For him to come off the bench for us, it is a huge boost. We just want to be ready and stay locked in,” Khris Middleton said of Parker’s effort on Sunday. “It wasn’t [going] for him on the offensive end early, the defensive end is really what got us going. He came in, he was locked in and did a great job of guarding his man and helping guys.”
In Boston, the Bucks need him to be the same player he was in Games 3 and 4. His scoring output was higher, scoring 17 and 16 points, respectively. But more importantly, Parker’s defensive effort in the first half of Game 4 was arguably the best of his career. He had three blocks and a pair of steals in that half alone. Parker has not had a single game in his entire career with those numbers.
Those three players all had a huge impact in Game 4. When Parker — who was the first player off Milwaukee’s bench — entered the Bucks were trailing 12-5. Milwaukee quickly went on a 6-0 run and outscored Boston 46-23 the rest of the half.
In total, the Bucks were better with the bench players on the floor. Parker, Dellavedova, Maker, and Tony Snell were the only players to post a positive plus/minus. The only starter that wasn’t a negative was Middleton, who was an even zero.
Winning on Tuesday means that the Bucks would have an opportunity to finish off the series in front of a home crowd at the Bradley Center. Milwaukee would also have the opportunity to fulfill the prophecy of Brandon Jennings in 2013.
Lose, well then, the Bucks have their backs against the wall yet again in Game 6.
Each game brings a new pressure that this team has not yet faced. Yes, this core was in a similar situation last year in the postseason against Toronto, but the expectations are different. This team was supposed to win 50 games or more, fight to have home court advantage in the first round and become a legitimate threat to make a deep run in the playoffs.
None of those goals were reached by the Bucks but winning a playoff series for the first time in 18 years would help to erase the fact that the team severely underachieved during the season. They just need to win two more games to make it happen.