Giannis, Khris Middleton Dominate as Bucks Down Kyrie Irving, Celtics in Game 2

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistMay 1, 2019

MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 30: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks goes to the basket against the Boston Celtics  during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on April 30, 2019 at the Fiserv Forum Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images).
Gary Dineen/Getty Images

The Milwaukee Bucks salvaged a game at home and evened their second-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics with Tuesday's 123-102 victory in Game 2 at the Fiserv Forum.

Boston still has home-court advantage against the Eastern Conference's top seed after winning the first contest, but the Bucks avoided a daunting hole and ensured the series will return to Milwaukee by tying it at a game apiece.

The trio of Giannis Antetokounmpo (29 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and two steals), Khris Middleton (28 points, seven rebounds and 7-of-10 shooting from downtown) and Eric Bledsoe (21 points, five assists and two blocks) spearheaded the effort for the Bucks.

Kyrie Irving was an ugly 4-of-18 from the field for nine points for the Celtics, who received 17 points and seven boards from Marcus Morris and 15 points and eight rebounds from Al Horford.


Locked-In Middleton Can Send Celtics Packing

ESPN analyst and Celtics legend Paul Pierce turned heads when he declared this series "over" after Boston's first win even though the Bucks are the top seed.

ESPN @espn

"I think it's over." – Paul Pierce following the Bucks’ 22-point loss to the Celtics in Game 1 https://t.co/XzsRzjQnW6

If Middleton continues to play like he did in Tuesday's contest, the series will be over. Just not in the direction Pierce was expecting.

Logic dictates Antetokounmpo is the player who can single-handedly swing this series as the potential MVP. However, he is also facing immense pressure being in the second round for the first time in his career as the primary source of hope for a franchise that made it past the opening round for the first time since the 2000-01 campaign.

He also didn't seem particularly confident when he said, "I can't promise you we are going to win, but I can promise we are going to play hard," going into Game 2, per Tim Bontemps of ESPN.

Antetokounmpo met his match during Game 1 in Horford. The Celtics big man displayed veteran guile while defending the three-time All-Star, directing a defense that swarmed the Bucks leader whenever he touched the ball and clogged the lane to force him into becoming a jump-shooter or facilitator.

The result was an ugly 7-of-21 from the field and a Bucks team that was desperately searching for answers before Tuesday's contest. It was also more of the same for Horford, who has made a career of serving as a matchup problem for stars and also befuddled Joel Embiid in last season's playoffs.

Antetokounmpo had another somewhat slow start from the field in Game 2 by his elevated standards, but Middleton was there to pick up the slack with 20 points in the first half alone.

Matt Velazquez @Matt_Velazquez

Khris Middleton is like the inside of Totino's pizza rolls right out of the oven.

Russillo @ryenarussillo

Middleton is at the point where you have to treat him a little differently. Can’t help off as much and have to be ready to pick him up earlier because he’ll pull up before Bucks set up in half court.

The Bucks would have been in comeback mode without his performance and not in position to seize control of the contest in the third quarter when he came out on fire yet again. It was also just a matter of time before Antetokounmpo finally found his footing in this series, and the fact that the Celtics had to devote additional defensive focus toward Middleton in the second half gave him room to operate.

Matt Velazquez @Matt_Velazquez

Khris Middleton was a flamethrower early. Giannis took the torch for most of the third quarter and then...hold up...is that Eric Bledsoe's music? Bucks up, 98-73, and on a 24-2 run.

Middleton, and not Giannis, is the biggest advantage that gives the Bucks the clearest road map to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Celtics have Horford and their swarming help defenders to at least contain Antetokounmpo, but Marcus Smart would be their answer to Middleton. Instead, he is sidelined with injury and unable to provide the constant motor and ability to hound ball-handlers with quickness and an understanding of angles that has helped him turn into a premier defender.

Smart also takes the pressure off the likes of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown by guarding wings like Middleton, which allows them to preserve their energy on the offensive end by avoiding unfavorable matchups.

Boston is going to exert plenty of defensive energy just looking for ways to slow Antetokounmpo that Middleton will have the opportunity to swing games and the entire series with open looks.

He delivered in Tuesday's contest and set the stage for the Eastern Conference's top seed to play its way into the third round.


What's Next?

The series shifts to Boston for Friday's Game 3 and Monday's Game 4.


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