BOSTON – The defending NBA champions were short-handed, roughed up and, finally, thoroughly defeated.
The Milwaukee Bucks’ season came to a close with a 109-81 loss to the Boston Celtics on Sunday in Game 7 of the second-round series at TD Garden.
The Celtics will face the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
Boston has been the NBA’s best team since Jan. 1 and Milwaukee was without star guard Khris Middleton due to a knee injury suffered in the first round of the playoffs.
“Every team goes through something,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Nobody feels sorry for us. It’s an age-old equation, like the calculus of the NBA is you got to have good players, you got to be a little bit lucky and you got to be healthy. You got to have all three of those things to advance in the playoffs.
“I’ve heard it a million times. I’ve heard it over and over again. We weren’t as healthy as we’d like to be. But nobody cares.”
The Bucks showed their championship mettle by pushing the best-of-seven series to its limit. But in the end the physical Celtics pounded Milwaukee into submission.
Without Middleton, the Bucks had nothing left in the tank in the second half and the Celtics pulled away. Giannis Antetokounmpo tried to will Milwaukee to win the series with remarkable individual performances and had 25 points, 20 rebounds and nine assists in the finale.
“We had a chance to win,” Antetokounmpo said. “But we gave every thing we had. We left everything out there. So could not be more proud of the guys and their effort.”
He shot just 1 for 7 in the fourth quarter for two points.
“There’s nothing they could have done that he hasn’t seen before,” Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said. “I think there’s times that maybe he forced it, like forced himself into scoring because he knew we needed to score and get to the free-throw line. And that’s tiring.
“And he then started just making plays for other people for threes. We got to knock those in and help him out. But I think overall, it’s just Giannis being Giannis. He carried our team.”
Holiday added 21 points but missed all six of his three-point attempts. Milwaukee finished just 4 for 33 (12.1%) from deep while the Celtics went 22 for 55 (40%).
Grant Williams made 7 three-pointers and led Boston with 27 points, often getting open looks with the Bucks keeping Brook Lopez in the paint to protect the rim.
“The game was probably over with three or more minutes to go,” Budenholzer said. “I think they were on pace for 100 or so. I think at the end of the day, while it can always be better, I think the overall defense and effort by our guys including Brook, everybody is to be commended. Their defense is to be commended. We got to score. We got to be better on offense.”
Jayson Tatum added 23 points for the Celtics despite foul trouble. He earned the respect of two-time MVP Antetokounmpo and the two stars shared a moment after the game.
“Obviously it kind of hurts not to win,” Antetokounmpo said. “But at the end of the day the way my mom raised me and my dad raised me, I’m a good human being. I wanted the wish Tatum and his team the best for them moving forward. I think they played great, they were able to win the series and I wish them the best of luck.”
Game 7s have a tendency to be struggles with fatigue, familiarity and nerves leading to missed shots. Williams made a three on Boston’s first possession, then the Celtics missed their next seven shots as the Bucks scored 10 straight points.
Antetokounmpo almost notched a triple-double in the first quarter with 10 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
The Bucks’ issues started piling up in the second quarter. Shots that were falling early began to clang off the rim. Key reserve Bobby Portis picked up his third foul with 8:49 remaining in the first half, stressing an already thin bench, and Milwaukee’s defense started to soften.
Tatum scored 17 points on 5-for-8 shooting in the first half, making all four of his three-point attempts.
The Celtics took the lead for good at 42-40 on a dunk from Marcus Smart with just over two minutes left in the half.
Smart made a key play right before halftime, forcing Antetokounmpo into a turnover and then drawing a foul on the Bucks star while putting up a shot around midcourt. Smart made all three free throws for a 48-43 lead at the break.
The Celtics kept up the pressure out of the locker room, pushing the lead to 63-51 just under four minutes into the third quarter.
Tatum drew his fourth foul at the 7:44 mark and headed to the bench with the Celtics up, 63-53. The Bucks couldn’t take advantage, however, with Williams knocking down a three-pointer for a 76-60 lead.
The Celtics headed into the fourth quarter with a 79-64 advantage, although the Bucks had some hope; home teams had trouble holding on to big leads in the series.
Holiday made a layup to start the fourth, but the Bucks couldn’t dent the lead any further. The home crowd could sense the victory and rose to ear-splitting volume when Payton Pritchard’s three-pointer gave the Celtics a 87-68 lead with 9:06 left.
Pritchard, who had been a nonfactor in the series, then really got the home crowd on its feet when he made back-to-back threes that made it 94-73. On the second shot he shook Holiday with a series of dribbling moves before shooting over the Bucks’ stalwart backcourt defender.
The teams emptied their benches with just over two minutes remaining and the Bucks headed toward the offseason after a grueling series.
“The NBA playoffs … it’s a challenge and it’s hard,” Holiday said. “You have to find ways on both ends of the floor. I feel like these two teams playing were very, very physical. Offensively and defensively. Some games they were letting it go, some games there were some weird calls.
“But at the end of the day it’s about making plays and we fell short.”
Budenholzer was emotional when he asked about the journey of the Bucks after winning the title last July.
“Couldn’t be more proud of the team,” Budenholzer said. “The competitiveness and the character and the toughness. It’s a great group. We’ve been through a lot together. A lot of basketball.
“We’ve had success and tonight we hit a wall and we met our end. It hurts and it’s hard. But my respect and love for team isn’t any different than it is at any other time.”
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee Bucks lose to 109-81 Celtics in Game 7 in Boston