The Milwaukee Bucks didn’t have enough to finish off the Boston Celtics at home in Game 6 on Friday. Just like the Bucks’ win Wednesday night in Boston, they went into double digits in the fourth quarter after a Celtics run in the third quarter. The Celtics would extend the lead early in the fourth, but this time the Bucks couldn’t stem the tide.
As the Bucks cut the lead to four earlier in the quarter, Jayson Tatum — who was spectacular and earned 46 points in an elimination game on the road — pushed the lead back to seven with a 3-pointer and the Celtics went on another run. Down double figures, the Bucks gave one last push to try and eliminate the Celtics, but back-to-back threes from Tatum and Jaylen Brown would prove too much for the home team. The Bucks couldn’t bring the deficit below double figures in the final five minutes of the game.
On Wednesday, the Bucks’ limited offense — without All-Star Khris Middleton — stole Lucky’s happiness and broke down in tears to recover from a 14-point deficit earlier in the fourth quarter. Giannis Antetokounmpo made it clear that he is the best player in the NBA in this game, scoring 40 points and making a late 3-pointer to reduce the deficit to one possession with less than two minutes remaining in the game. Shortly thereafter, Bobby Portis would make the basket that would win the game after catching an offensive rebound from a miss by Antetokounmpo at the free-throw line to finally give the Bucks the lead. However, without Pat Connaughton, these memorable plays will never take place.
As a reserve, Connaughton didn’t play 30 minutes in a single game against the Chicago Bulls in the first round. But without Middleton and against the best defense in the NBA, his offense has been crucial for the Bucks not only to survive in this series but also to win two games away. He has played more than 30 minutes in every game since Game 3 and is fourth in the series on average behind Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Wesley Matthews.
Connaughton is averaging just 11.7 points per game, but he’s a threat that needs the attention of the Celtics defense. He’s a strong finisher on the rim and also a 3-point shooter that the Bucks desperately need for ground clearance. He’s shooting 58.7 percent from the field and 50 percent from three in this series. In Game 5, of the three 3-pointers he hit, two came in the fourth quarter. One was to stop the Celtics’ run, which brought the Bucks down 14 points, and the other was to bring the deficit below two digits, where it would remain for the rest of the game.
Also, the whole “RPG shooters shoot better on the go than at home” theory doesn’t quite work for Connaughton in this series, because he’s at home in TD Garden. Connaughton is from Arlington, Mass. — six miles north of Boston. He played in one state tournament game on this floor. What might be seen as hostility to some of the Celtics’ home crowd is love language to Connaughton.
The way he’s played this series, the Bucks need to find a way to get him even more involved on offense. He hasn’t just scored more than 13 points in that series and hasn’t managed more than three 3-pointers in a game. If Mike Budenholzer decides to bring him back off the bench, he needs to include him on offense early and often.
Prepare Connaughton for some easy cuts and layups. Holiday and Antetokounmpo need to find him in the transition period and get him a dunk or two to make him feel comfortable like he’s watching a New England Patriots game with the old crew on a Sunday.
Then set him up in threes, over and over and over again. If he finishes that game on 12 tries, it’s fine. If he attempts 15 threes, that’s fine too. The Bucks need to make it as easy as possible for Antetokounmpo in the paint throughout the game to ensure he has the energy to finish off the Celtics one more time without the other member of the Bucks’ all-star duo.
Connaughton was arguably the most important role player for the Bucks in this series. For them to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, he must channel the energy of St. John’s Preparatory School to take on a much larger one.