Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum gave us a heavyweight bout for the ages on Friday, combining for 90 points on 62 shots. Tatum’s Celtics got the win, sending this series to a Game 7 on Sunday.
It came down to help. Tatum, who finished with 46 points on 17-for-32 shooting, got more. Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart combined for 43 points on nine 3-pointers, and they both hit crucial 3-pointers down the stretch. The top support Antetokounmpo got was 17 fairly quiet and inefficient points from Jrue Holiday. Outside of Pat Connaughton’s 14 off the bench, no other Buck scored more than six points.
Tatum took matters into his own hands over the game’s pivotal stretch. The Bucks had cut a 14-point Boston lead to four with just over eight minutes to play on a Giannis 3 from the top of the key. The building was on fire. The Celtics were just about to lose their grip. Then Tatum rattled off 10 straight on some of the silkiest jumpers you could draw up.
Fewer than three minutes later, Boston has its lead back up to 11 and it was safe the rest of the way. Brown called it a “signature” performance from Tatum, and he’s right. Think about the history of the Boston Celtics, and Tatum is now just the second player in franchise history, joining Sam Jones, to post multiple 45-point playoff games.
Tatum’s 46 is also the second-highest output for a Boston player in an elimination game, tied with Paul Pierce. Tatum is also one of just five players in history to score 45-plus to force a Game 7, joining LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain, Kawhi Leonard and Jamal Murray.
Boston, obviously in addition to its defense, has become a title contender because, in part, Tatum has toned down the hero ball, but the Celtics needed a hero in Game 6 and he stepped up. He was terrifically efficient on Friday, but like Giannis, this was also sheer will type stuff.
Tatum has taken 85 shots over the last three games. James Harden took two shots in the second half of Philly’s season-ending loss on Thursday. He entered Game 6 shooting just 40 percent for the series, but he wasn’t going to go out quietly. He has, and has, zero intention of ducking the bright lights.
You always hope for efficiency, but the relentlessness of a great scorer is so appreciated in moments like this. Giannis is the same way. Nobody else had it going for Milwaukee, so he put his head down, literally, and scored 44 for the Bucks on 30 shots. He added 20 rebounds to join Shaquille O’Neal as the only player this century to author a 40-20 game in the playoffs. Throw in his six assists and he stands alone.
I was really late to the Giannis bandwagon. I was, and will forever remain, skeptical of players who can’t shoot and have to force their way to the rim (yes, I’m aware Giannis has improved greatly as a midrange shooter even as a 3-point shooter, even if the numbers are pretty bad with regard to the latter). But force is the operative term here.
Antetokounmpo’s absolute refusal to be denied, his willingness to flirt with, and often commit, out-of-control charges and turnovers by barreling downhill time after time after time, his unending pursuit of offensive boards, bodies hanging off him as he grabs his own misses and goes right back up, it’s honestly exhausting to watch. But he never burns out. He never stops coming. Harden once said Giannis didn’t have any skills, and I’ll be damned if a part of me didn’t ignorantly agree, but I’m here to tell you, a motor like this on a body like that, it’s not just a skill, it’s a superpower.
Tatum’s buckets are prettier. Antetokounmpo’s are inevitable. For that reason, I want to give the Bucks a slight edge in Game 7, Boston’s home-court advantage notwithstanding. Giannis is going to get somewhere near 40. I would bet almost anything on it. Tatum, however, has more dependable offensive help in Brown and Smart and I would bet on a big Al Horford game, too. Khris Middleton’s absence could really be felt in the half-court individual creation of a tense Game 7.
However it works out, what a brawl between two of the best players in the game we got on Friday. Given these guys’ mentalities, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we get a sequel on Sunday.