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Celtics-Bucks Is an Instant Classic

Stan Van Gundy talks Boston vs. Milwaukee, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum ahead of Game 6.

As one of the most insightful and entertaining color commentators in NBA broadcasting, Stan Van Gundy has enjoyed a courtside seat for most of the Eastern Conference semifinals, an instant classic slugfest between the Celtics and Bucks that’s loaded with physicality, defensive discipline and an endless stream of twists and turns.

On Thursday afternoon, I caught up with the former coach for an extended conversation about that series and his own rise in television, where he’s scheduled to work the Western Conference finals on Turner beside Reggie Miller and Kevin Harlan.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SI: All these second-round series have had entertaining stretches, but with Bucks vs. Celtics, you've arguably called the best one.

SVG: It's the best series I've seen in years, to be honest. The level of competitiveness and intensity is incredible. In the other series, you know, you see a team that will sort of … I'm not gonna say 'take a night off', but maybe have a night where they don't compete quite as hard as the other nights. But in that series … I mean, those teams don't even take a possession off. And I really appreciate, to be quite honest, both those teams, both those coaches, and every player on both of those teams and what they're putting into it and what they're bringing to the fans in this series.

I think even the fan bases on both sides really respect the other side and are just loving what these teams are doing on the floor.

SI: When you say it's one of the most competitive series that you've seen in years, is that extending to and including the Finals, period point blank?

SVG: Yeah! I mean, look, the level of physicality, people are getting knocked down all the time. You know, Giannis [on Wednesday] night, it looked like he was ringside with Ferdie Pacheco and the cut man over there, to get him back out on the court. It's just bodies hitting all the time. Nobody gives anybody anything. The best regular season defense was Boston and right now the best postseason defense overall is Milwaukee, and these teams are going at it. It is tough to get a good shot in this series. If you don't get out in transition you're playing in the half-court, it is tough to get good shots.

SI: So you've had a night to process Game 5. Just broadly, what did you make of it? What was your reaction to that crunch time? It looked like Boston had that game. Did you feel that way when you were watching it?

SVG: No, in fact, I think we said on the air that Milwaukee's really dangerous, because they're one of the best three-point shooting teams in the league. They hadn't shot it well the entire series. But all they need to do is get it going for one quarter. They were 6-for-6 from three in the fourth. And I think Boston, with about five minutes to go in that game, up 10, somewhere in there, just started basically walking the ball up and trying to play the clock. And it was way too early. If you're not going to start your offense until there's 10 on the clock against a good defense like that, it's going to be tough to create good shots.

And so I thought they got a little stagnant while Milwaukee was on the attack—sort of the opposite of what happened in Game 4 when it went the other way, and I think the challenge for the team in the lead is to keep playing. You're not going to run out the clock for four or five minutes. You just can't do it. When I thought they might be in control was when Horford had the putback dunk to put them up six.

SI: That was Boston's last basket.

SVG: But then they came right back down and got a three and, you know, you're right back into it. I've just come to think this year, to be honest, Michael, we've seen so many comebacks that they're not … they just don't surprise me anymore. You're down double digits in the fourth quarter. O.K. That happens all the time now, that teams come back. It's cliche, but it truly is a 48-minute game now. And you've just got to keep playing and when you're watching it, it's just not over. I mean, unless you're up 55 after three, like Memphis was, then it's over. But a 10 or a 12-point lead with even six minutes to go is nothing.

And fans are catching on! If it was the mid ‘90s and it's a 10- or 12-point game with six minutes to go, people are starting to leave the arena. Now nobody leaves in those situations, because the fans have figured it out. In the regular season you have something like that every night. So it's just the NBA in 2022.

SI: You can relate to the spot that Boston is in right now. Back in 2009 when you were coaching the Magic, you were in a series against the Celtics in the second round, tied 2-2 with a 14-point fourth-quarter lead, and you wind up losing that game by four.

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SVG: Yup. We went down 3-2. That's right.

You then won Game 6. Dwight Howard had a crazy 20-20 game and then you blow Boston out in Game 7. What do you remember about going down 3-2 in that situation knowing you lost a winnable game against the defending champs. They were wounded. They didn't have KG. You guys didn't have Jameer Nelson. And you look at Milwaukee right now, Milwaukee doesn't have Khris Middleton. They're the defending champs. There's a parallel there.

SVG: I just remember, you know, it's a little different situation, because we were down 3-2 and going home for Game 6. That's a little different situation than Boston, down 3-2 going on the road. And then I just remember Game 7 and having maybe our best game of the entire season. I just remember going into that, I forget what it was, but Boston as a franchise had some incredible record in Game 7s at home. And I also remember leaving the court after Game 6, Paul Pierce yelling at guys on our team "Game 7 ain't for everybody." I've never forgotten that. And then our guys obviously rose to the challenge pretty well. I wouldn't say we won it easily, but fairly comfortably.

SI: What do you say to your team after that Game 5? Do you say anything? How do you mentally and psychologically get yourself back up?

SVG: You're down after the game, quiet plane ride and the whole thing and, you know, nobody's feeling good. You come in the next day and guys are just serious, watching the film, making the corrections and everything else. And then by game day, they're ready to go again. We had—and I think it'll be the same with Boston here—great confidence. Let's just stay focused, get this game right here and then we'll go play Game 7 up there. I don't remember anybody lacking confidence or feeling like we were out of it, or we couldn't come back or any of that. It was a loss. We knew it was going to be a tough series and you just keep playing.

And I think that's how these guys will take it, too. I don't think Milwaukee will think it's over either. I don't think they'll be relaxed. I think these teams, they're out there playing each other, they know how competitive this series is and how tough it is. And there's not going to be anything easy so I don't think you'll see a letdown. I expect you'll see another very competitive hard-fought game.

SI: After Game 5, Ime Udoka said that offensive rebounds were the game. Milwaukee grabbed 17, Boston grabbed five. Bobby Portis had seven himself and then, of course, the game winner. Have you ever coached in a situation where your team was just getting bludgeoned on the offensive boards like the Celtics were and how do you strategically deal with something like that?

SVG: Well, there's no real strategy other than, you know, you can get better rebounders on the floor and your players have to make the adjustment and get more physical blocking people out. Other than that there's not a whole lot of strategy. It's get the right people on the floor and implore them to do a better job.

I think in the fourth quarter Milwaukee had seven offensive rebounds and Boston had one. But Milwaukee also went 6-for-6 from three in a series where they hadn't shot the ball well at all. And Bobby Portis, like, he didn't even play in the fourth quarter of Game 4 when Boston made the comeback. They played George Hill instead. And I thought it was a good adjustment by Bud to play Bobby Portis. He gave them a little bit more offense and obviously his rebounding was key.

SI: What has surprised you covering the series, be it Milwaukee leading 3-2 without Middleton, Al Horford's performances, any particular matchups or coaching decisions that have caught your eye?

SVG: Al Horford's Game 4 I think was surprising. I mean, you know, 35 years old to play the best playoff game in your career against a team like Milwaukee and guard Giannis virtually the whole night at the other end, I thought that was incredible. I wouldn't say it's surprised me, but it's been hard even for the best players. Giannis figured it out in Game 5 but that's really the first good shooting night he's had. He's scored a lot of points because he's taken 28, 29 shots a game. But his percentages, until last night, had been very low. He's a guy who shoots to 55% on the year and he was shooting 44% going into last night, so it's been tough on him. If you look at Holiday's shooting percentages, he shot 50 from the floor and 40 from three during the year. He's down in the 30s and 20s in this series. I mean it has been a defensive series.

I think Grant Williams in particular, when he's been matched up individually on Giannis, has surprised me just a little. I always thought he was a good defender. Now I'm wondering if he's the best defender in the league. Both coaches have made tweaks and adjustments as time has gone on, but nothing real drastic. Ime basically went out in the fourth quarter and played the same lineup, that smaller lineup that got him the win in Game 4. He played them again in the fourth quarter in Game 5, and it went the other way. So that's just the way this series has gone.

SI: Speaking of Giannis, I know his shooting numbers haven't been where they typically are, particularly around the rim. He's still averaging 33 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists against probably the best defense he's ever faced in a playoff series. When you think about the all-time great players that you've coached against, how does Giannis stack up as someone who's "scheme-proof," for lack of a better phrase?

SVG: I would say he stacks up great. The thing about him is he's just relentless. Relentless in the way he attacks the glass, but also relentless, if teams make it tough on him for three quarters, he'll just keep coming at you. He never quits on the game and on what he does well. Besides his talent, he's just got an incredible competitive drive. But the other thing I would say in Milwaukee, what makes him so difficult to scheme against is that is a very well-constructed roster. They went there, and Bud and Jon Horst, they knew what they had in Giannis and they literally don't put a single guy on the floor who can't shoot the three.

In Game 1 Boston was doubling down in the post. And he was just kicking it out, they were knocking down threes, so they went to just playing him 1-on-1. They've only doubled him really two or three times the entire rest of the series because of leaving guys open. So it's a combination of Giannis's play and putting the right people around him to make it hard to scheme against him.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) is guarded by Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum.

SI: I know he made a big three down the stretch in Game 5, but every time Giannis shoots one in this series, you correctly point out on the broadcast that it's not a great shot for him. Have you ever coached a player where you felt the need to curb their shot selection or talk to them about it?

SVG: You certainly have talks with guys about shot selection, but particularly your best players and guys like Giannis, you have to, as a coach, also give them great freedom. For what they get out of Giannis at both ends of the floor and on the glass and everything else, you gotta let that guy play. I wouldn't reel him in. You've got a guy that, what, 98, 99% of what he does is great. So you're not going to quibble about the 2%. I don't know why he feels the need to take those. I know he's wide open, but the bottom line is he's wide open on every possession. So I guess on the flip side, if it's a good shot four times a game, why isn't it a good shot 30 times a game?

I always felt this way about LeBron when he was in his prime, too. With the great players you can't take everything away, and so we always felt against LeBron, if he's going to make four or five threes, well, then we're in a lot of trouble. But we're not going to be able to take that away. We've gotta try to limit him getting in the paint. And that's what Boston's tried to do to Giannis. I think it's smart defense. If you're going to extend out to the three-point line and try to get pressure on him, it's impossible to keep him out of paint. You're going to have to live with those.

SI: What have you made of Tatum's series?

SVG: Not the most efficient series, but I credit that more to the defense. The only game I didn't think he was good in, though, was Game 3. I thought Game 3, for whatever reason, he was really indecisive with the ball. I thought he passed up a lot of shots. But I thought he corrected that in Game 4 and was aggressive, and the same thing last night. He's got open shots off pick-and-rolls because Milwaukee is back in that drop coverage. They blitzed him, the first couple of games in the series, and made him give the ball up but then that made them 4-on-3 on the backline and Boston lit them up in Game 2. And so then Milwaukee went back to their normal coverage, to not be in rotation and give up threes. Tatum has had shots and he can shoot it better than he has shot it. But I think his decisions have been good. I think he's played well.

SI: Do you feel like the winner of this series should be considered the favorite to win the title this year?

SVG: It sort of changes from series to series and night to night. I watched the first round with Golden State and they finally had everybody and they were playing those three guards together, and I was saying, man, they're playing better than everybody. Meanwhile, Phoenix was really struggling with New Orleans. And, I'm thinking, wow, Golden State's got to be the favorite in the West right now. Now you're in this series and Golden State was down 55 last night. You're saying 'this isn't the same team that I saw.' When you hit this level, at least this year, whoever's in the four teams that advance, anybody's gonna have a shot. But I certainly think the winner of the Boston-Milwaukee series is a strong contender. But I wouldn't call anybody a clear favorite at this point. Going into the playoffs, I would have said Phoenix was a clear favorite. I'd probably still make them a slight favorite, but they've had their struggles too. They've been 2-2 in both series. It just hasn't been easy for anybody.

This Boston-Milwaukee series is one that, you know, for me anyway and what I enjoy watching, I wish they'd do it like tiebreakers in tennis: play it until somebody gets up two games. Just keep going at it. I'm looking forward to tomorrow night.

SI: When this series ends, you’ll be on the call for the Western Conference finals For you as a broadcaster, what does it mean to work on such a big stage for the first time?

SVG: It's exciting to be on that series, and to work with those two guys who I've heard call games for a long, long time. And I'm excited about being on Reggie's side for a change in a playoff series, you know? Not having him on the other side, killing me. That part of it's really good, too. It'll be good to be on his team. But those guys are far more experienced than I am, and I'll just take my guidance from those two.

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