The Bucks made an incredible 4th-quarter comeback to beat the Celtics and take a 3-2 series lead.
The Bucks had just a 6% chance of winning with 2 minutes left, but rallied as the series goes back to Milwaukee.
FiveThirtyEight now gives the Bucks the best chance of making the Finals in the East, potentially swinging the championship race.
The NBA championship race may have swung in two frantic minutes.
When 35-year-old Boston Celtics big man Al Horford soared to the basket for a put-back dunk to put his team up six with 2:12 remaining in Game 5, there was a feeling of inevitability.
The Celtics had out-played the Milwaukee Bucks for a majority of the game, and Horford’s momentous, highlight jam seemed to take the air out of the Bucks’ sails. Milwaukee had already climbed back from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter to cut the Celtics’ lead to four – Horford’s tip-dunk felt like Boston closing the door on a comeback.
According to ESPN’s win probability measurement, when Bucks big man Bobby Portis missed a jump shot on the other end with 1:45 left in the game, the Celtics had a 94.6% chance of winning the game.
Even that was bearish for the metric: When the Celtics led 98-87 with 8:01 remaining in the fourth, ESPN gave Boston a 98.1% chance of winning the game.
But then, the reigning champion Bucks showed their mettle with a comeback that was equal parts grit and lucky bounces.
After Portis missed that jumper, the Bucks snagged the deep offensive rebound. Wesley Matthews kicked it out to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who, to that point, was 3-of-19 from the three-point range in the series. Antetokounmpo knocked down the three to cut the Celtics’ six-point lead in half.
Less than a minute later, Boston’s Marcus Smart lost the ball while driving the lane, appearing to simply lose his grip while gathering it. The Bucks raced down the other way and found Jrue Holiday – who was 8-of-23 from the field to that point – for an open three-pointer. He canned it to tie the game.
Things still had to work out just right for the Bucks.
With 31 seconds remaining, Jayson Tatum hit two free throws to put the Celtics up two. On the other end, Antetokounmpo was fouled and sent to the free throw line with 14 seconds left.
Antetokounmpo, who is shooting just 64% from the line this postseason, hit his first and missed the second. But the miss was corralled by Portis, who laid it back in with 11.4 seconds remaining. Bucks up two.
From there, Holiday made three incredible defensive plays. After blocking Smart’s shot, Holiday threw it off of the Celtics guard while falling out of bounds to give the Bucks possession. After two free throws from the Bucks’ Pat Connaughton, Holiday then made the game-winning steal, as the Celtics tried to go full-court to hit a game-tying three.
How unusual was Holiday’s block-and-steal combination? He’s the first player to do it in 25 years, according to ESPN.
A potential championship swing
According to NBC, the winner of Game 5 in a 2-2 series has gone on to win the series 82% of the time, which is good news for the Bucks as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 Friday.
The comeback could have big implications on the NBA championship race.
Since February, the Celtics have been the NBA’s best team, posting a league-best 24-6 record. They also owned the NBA’s No. 1 offense and the No. 1 defense during that stretch.
Advanced metrics have loved Boston over the second half of the season. On April 7, the last week of the regular season, FiveThirtyEight gave the Celtics a 33% chance of winning the championship, 12 points better than the second-place Phoenix Suns, and 21 points better than the Bucks.
On May 5, even as the Celtics were tied 1-1 with the Bucks in this second-round series, FiveThirtyEight gave the Celtics a 60% chance of winning the series and a 23% chance of winning the championship.
However, as of Thursday morning, FiveThirtyEight now gives the Bucks a 70% chance of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals, and an 18% chance of winning the Finals, second behind the Suns.
Milwaukee’s path to the Finals also looks promising. If they eliminate the Celtics, the Bucks will play either the Miami Heat or the Philadelphia 76ers. The Bucks beat the 76ers in their season series, 2-1, and Philadelphia is currently limping, with star center Joel Embiid banged up, and facing elimination against the Heat.
The Heat were the No. 1 seed in the East this season, and Milwaukee split their season series with Miami. But the Bucks swept the Heat in the first round of last year’s playoffs. The Heat have an improved roster with the additions of Kyle Lowry and PJ Tucker, but Lowry has missed three of five games against the Sixers with a hamstring injury and is shooting just 29% from the field in the postseason.
The Bucks also have hope on the horizon, as All-Star wing Khris Middleton could return from an MCL sprain if the Bucks advance.
The Bucks still have to beat the Celtics in Milwaukee, where the Celtics won Game 4 and nearly won Game 3 if not for a missed tip-in as time expired.
Nonetheless, the team that dominated the second half of the regular season now has their backs against the wall.
As Celtics head coach Ime Udoka told reporters after Game 5, “We gave up a golden opportunity tonight.”
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