MILWAUKEE — Every Boston Celtics member inside the Fiserv Forum Saturday afternoon was in disbelief.
As time ticked away and the Celtics trailed by three, Boston’s Jaylen Brown handed the ball to Marcus Smart on the perimeter. Immediately, Smart attempted to shoot Milwaukee Bucks goaltender Jrue Holiday, giving him no space. The whistle sounded immediately as Holiday’s arm collided with Smart’s.
However, much to the delight of the majority of the 17,736 in attendance and the chagrin of everyone in the Celtics’ traveling squad, the foul was called on the floor – a tear – instead of a three-stroke foul. Smart hit the first free throw and intentionally missed the second to give Boston another chance, but none of the three backhands came, giving Milwaukee a 103-101 victory and a 2-1 lead in the best seven series.
Boston coach Ime Udoka said bluntly that he felt the call was missed.
“It was a foul. It was a foul. He caught the ball, it turns into a shot,” Udoka said, arguing for a shot foul over the field call. “Both feet out. Can’t tell it’s a sweep. You’re going in for a shot. That’s a bad call. Poor non-call.”
When asked what explanation he was given, Udoka replied that he was told that Smart was sweeping his arms.
“I saw it in person but I also saw it on the movie I just went to see,” Udoka said. “It’s a shot. He goes in a shot. He was fouled on the way up. Bad missed call.”
Asked about the call after the game, Smart asked every reporter in the room what their opinion was. After receiving no real response, Smart said, “I mean, that’s all I have to say.”
Smart said that at this time and in this situation, it made no sense for him to try the tearing move knowing the Celtics had to play for a tie.
“You need three [points] with 4.6 seconds they know we need three,” Smart said. “We know they’re going to foul. It’s not like he got me when it was at its lowest. I was already in my shooting motion. I thought it was going to be three free throws; they said no.”
Instead, Smart made the first free throw before intentionally missing the second in an attempt to give the Celtics a chance. Smart, Robert Williams III and Al Horford all had successful attempts but none failed. Horford’s second attempt, which went through the basket and sent part of the Celtics’ bench in celebration, was a tenth of a second after the clock expired.
“Smart timed it perfectly,” Horford said. “Was able to get the rebound. At that point he was just hanging around the rim. We felt like we looked good there. I think I tipped him once, I missed, the second time I knew I was slightly off, so I wasn’t very optimistic. I was late. But we gave ourselves a chance to tie him up and send him to overtime.
Smart said he called alone to attempt the missed free throw and let his teammates know he was coming, but indicated there may have been another missed call as his teammates were trying to get the shot on it at the end.
“It was perfect. I missed it perfectly,” Smart said. “Nobody was ready. Our guys were. I get it. [Milwaukee forward Bobby Portis] pulls on my shoulder which baffles me. But I took a good look. I had it on the rim. Like Al said, we had a few chances but it didn’t work out for us.”
Boston trailed by no less than 13 points in the fourth quarter before coming back strong to take a 100-99 lead on a pair of free throws from Brown with 1:49 remaining. Milwaukee couldn’t respond on their ensuing possession and Boston had two chances to push the lead to four but Smart and Brown both missed 3 runs.
On the next downhill, Giannis Antetokounmpo hit a layup to give the Bucks the lead. After another stoppage, Holiday hit a bucket in the lane to push the lead to 103-100 with 11.2 seconds left. Udoka crafted a play coming out of timeout that could have gotten a quick two, but was foiled by the Bucks.
“Smart threw it at me in the corner,” Brown said. “Jrue Holiday was on top of me. He did a good job of putting pressure on me. I was trying to get in my place and he took it away so I returned it to Smart.”
It was then that Brown considered the call at the end of the game.
“You have to understand the time and the score,” he said. “We’re down three. We’re looking to get one. I thought it was pretty obvious. All year they’ve been calling it on the floor, which we understand. But the time and the score, I think they missed one.”
Holiday said he believed Smart was still on the sidelines when the contact happened. “It’s not a shooting move,” Holiday said. “It wasn’t facing the rim.”
Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said the plan wasn’t for the Bucks to commit three in this situation, but they were lucky the call was for just two free throws instead of three .
There were a few times Udoka thought about using his challenge before deciding to accept it on a block/charge call that went up against Grant Williams with 5:57 left in the game. Without that challenge, Udoka couldn’t ask the officials to watch to see if Smart was on the shooting move in the deciding possession late in the game.
“You would like to keep it more towards the end,” Udoka said. “But their explanation is if they don’t fall they don’t call it. So I’ll teach my guys to flop more.”
Despite the questionable call late in the game, the Celtics were the more aggressive team in the game’s final 4:30 p.m. In that streak, Boston fired 17 free throws to Milwaukee’s zero. Still, there was plenty of physical play by both teams throughout the contest.
But there were times when Udoka saw his team complaining too much and not coming back in defense. After Williams complained following a no-call on one side, Pat Connaughton hit a 3-pointer on the other, prompting an angry timeout from Udoka.
“As much as they’re going to let you play, you have to play through this and have our composure,” Udoka said. “If they’re going to call it that consistently on both sides, you have to play and not bitch about the calls.”
Boston shot poorly throughout the game, failing to exceed 35% shooting in each of the first three quarters before making 11 of 22 shots in the fourth — three of which attempted to come back late. Brown and Horford combined to shoot 17 of 33 for 49 points, but the Celtics got a night off from Jayson Tatum at the worst time. He finished with 10 points on 4-of-19 shooting and missed all six of his 3-point attempts.
Like he did in Game 2, Tatum walked into the press conference with a black wrap around his left hand and wrist. He grabbed the wrist after bracing for a dunk in the second quarter when he was fouled by Antetokounmpo. He said the wrist bothered him after that game, but “it was something I had been dealing with for probably two months now.” He said it wasn’t something he hadn’t had to deal with in the past.
Tatum said he initially injured him in a fall two months ago and while rest would have done him good, he is sensitive at times as he continues to be hit. He insists the wound is healed, however.
Tatum was also frustrated with the team’s overall performance, and it was a game he felt they should have won.
“I mean they played well. I have to give them credit,” Tatum said. “But I think the frustrating part is all things considered, we still had chances and came back and gave ourselves a chance to win the game. And we didn’t. And that’s tough.”
ESPN’s Jamal Collier contributed to this story.
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