As the techno music blared, and the Milwaukee crowd answered the hype man's call with a deafening "fear-the-deer!" chant, it felt like a playoff game was about to begin inside the Fiserv Forum on Thursday night. After the ball went up and the matchup between the Bucks and Celtics got underway, however, it looked like a preseason contest.
There were more missed shots than you can count, turnovers galore and even Giannis Antetokounmpo slipping comically to the floor on a failed drive to the basket. The first few minutes were, to put it kindly, bad. And it didn't get better from there.
Kyrie Irving went 9-of-27 from the field as the Celtics shot a season-low 38.2 percent from the field, and the Bucks weren't much better, making just 42 percent of their attempts. Between them, they turned the ball over 22 times, and one of the highlights of the night came not during the game, but on a timeout break when legendary performer Red Panda assisted the Bucks' dunk team on a sweet trampoline slam. For all the poor play though, we were at least rewarded with an exciting ending.
Following a few clutch shots on each side, Marcus Smart tied up Giannis, which led to a confusing jump-ball sequence with just 0.2 seconds left on the shot clock. The Greek Freak directed the ball to Brook Lopez, but the refs ruled he didn't get his tip attempt off in time, resulting in a shot clock violation that gave the Celtics the ball, and a chance to win. With 3.5 seconds remaining on the game clock, Irving caught the inbounds pass and put up a last-second effort that clanged off the rim.
"That's a tough one," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said postgame, just about summing things up.
The Bucks escaped with a 98-97 victory, but it was so disjointed, that it was hard to take anything meaningful from it at all. Except perhaps, further proof that the Eastern Conference playoffs are going to be electric.
For much of the past decade, LeBron James ruled the Eastern Conference with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers. When the playoffs rolled around each spring, it was more often than not a formality rather than a true contest between two teams. Starting with his first season in Miami in 2010-11, LeBron played in 24 Eastern Conference playoff series, and just four of them went a full seven games -- two of which were last season. Only four more even went to six.
Now, LeBron is out West, and the race for his abdicated throne is shaping up in grand fashion. The Celtics, though strong, never emerged as the dynamite force they were expected to be, and a four-team race has materialized between them, the Bucks, the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers. (It was five for a while, but the Indiana Pacers lost Victor Oladipo to a season-ending injury, and with that, any serious chance of coming out of the East.)
That's four of the top-10 offenses in the league, four of the top-11 defenses and together they own four of the top-eight net ratings. Put simply, four extremely strong teams, each with legitimate hopes of winning the conference. Three of them, as well, made big moves at the deadline to bolster their squads. The Raptors added Marc Gasol, the Sixers picked up Tobias Harris and the Bucks swung a trade for Nikola Mirotic, all of which should make the stretch run even more exciting.
While the Bucks deserve to be favorites thus far, due to the fact that they own the league's best record and best net rating, Thursday night's contest was a reminder that any four of these teams can beat each other. Assuming they all make it to the second round, from there on in is going to be a wild, entertaining ride. And none of them, not even the Bucks, will be taking anyone lightly.
"It was a good game," Giannis said afterwards in the Bucks' locker room. "We didn't play our best basketball, but they're a really dangerous team. If we see them in the playoffs, I know we're up 2-1 right now [in the season series], but we gotta take Boston really serious, because they play for 48 minutes. They don't stop playing. They move the ball real well, they get in their spots and execute the game-plan so well. They're a dangerous team."