Length and athleticism make the Milwaukee Bucks a dangerous team with the ball.
When they defend the way they did on Friday night against the Boston Celtics, they’re nearly unstoppable.
Khris Middleton scored 23 points, Giannis Antetokounmpo added 19 and the Bucks used a dominating first half to overwhelm the Celtics 116-92, narrowing their deficit in the first-round playoff series to 2-1.
Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker each added 17 for the energized Bucks, who held the Celtics without a field goal for nearly an 11-minute stretch of the first half.
Milwaukee found its defense after a disheartening 14-point loss in Game 2, getting contributions from up and down the roster.
“We realized how important this game was … Everybody that played came in ready to go,” Antetokounmpo said.
Backup center Thon Maker scored 14 points and had five of the Bucks’ 12 blocks. Pesky guard Matthew Dellavedova, a veteran of a championship run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, helped hold young Celtics point guard Terry Rozier to nine points on 2-of-7 shooting.
The Bucks were the aggressors all night long.
“The activity, if you take the stat sheet out of it, the activity and the energy that we brought … as you go through the game, that’s what you need, is the energy first,” coach Joe Prunty said.
Al Horford scored 16 for the Celtics, who fell behind by 23 at halftime and got no closer than 76-62 with 3:06 left in the third quarter on Jayson Tatum’s 3-pointer.
The game was so well in hand that the Bucks closed out the victory with Antetokounmpo on the bench for much of the fourth quarter with five fouls. Middleton had eight points in the fourth.
Game 4 is Sunday in Milwaukee. The Celtics will need to get off to a much better start if they want to avoid going home with a 2-2 series tie.
“We got into a hole. This is new for our group,” Horford said. “They had it going … and we really didn’t have an answer for them tonight.”
Milwaukee hustled for loose balls and stayed active around the paint, using its length to get deflections and disrupt Boston in the lane.
The 7-foot-1 Maker, in particular, provided a huge boost to help Milwaukee counter what had been a decisive edge off the bench for the Celtics. Maker got extended minutes only because starting center John Henson missed the game with a sore back.
Nearly everything else went Milwaukee’s way, too.
Parker, who voiced displeasure this week after playing just 24 minutes over the first two games, was 7 of 12 from the field and played 30 minutes. Bledsoe, outplayed by Rozier in the first two games, shot 8 of 13.
“Obviously, it was all in the first half,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said about his team’s downfall. “They were in such a rhythm offensively.”
Celtics: Rozier had five turnovers, but four came in a first quarter in which the Celtics fell behind 27-12. He had nine assists … Boston held a 45-37 edge in rebounding, including 17-7 on the offensive glass. But the Celtics allowed the Bucks to shoot at least 57 percent for a second straight game.
Bucks: Malcolm Brogdon replaced Tony Snell at guard alongside Bledsoe. Brogdon, who missed two months late in the season with a quad injury, scored five points but helped limit the Celtics’ backcourt of Rozier and Jaylen Brown (11 points). … Middleton added eight rebounds and seven assists.
Maker made his teammates proud, especially after having a conversation with Antetokounmpo a couple weeks ago.
“I told him we had to bring killer mentality back,” Antetokounmpo said. “He was hungry.”
Maker was 3 of 4 from the 3-point line. He also played with passion, getting in opponents’ faces at times.
“We can’t get too sped up or get slowed down,” Maker said. “We’ve just got to find our rhythm and play with pace.”
Colorful comments made by Rozier and Bledsoe earlier in the series fueled speculation that there might be a budding feud between the point guards.
Bledsoe outplayed his counterpart on Friday night.
“There’s nothing about me and Bledsoe. There’s nothing that he did differently today,” Rozier said. “They punched us in the mouth early. We’ve got to do a better job of responding on Sunday, and we will.”
HE SAID IT
“For me, it’s about seeing the offense, finding my spots to be aggressive … just playing in rhythm.” — Middleton after he shot 10 of 17 from the field.
Game 4 is Sunday afternoon at the Bradley Center.
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