In Game 7, the Bucks dared Grant Williams and the Celtics' supporting cast to make open shots, packing the paint to limit Boston's points on drives. It was a choice Milwaukee was willing to lose with, watching Williams deliver a game-high and career-best 27 points, knocking down 7/18 threes.
Boston also "held" Giannis Antetokounmpo to 25 points and Milwaukee to 81, a series low. It was the ideal time for the Celtics to put together their best performance in this year's playoffs.
Now, for a deep dive into how they did it.
Despite Shooting 29.2%, Celtics Stay Within Six Entering Second Quarter
Grant Williams opened the scoring with a three from the left wing.
Wesley Matthews put the Bucks on the board, beating Marcus Smart for a backdoor layup.
A couple Milwaukee possessions later, Williams tried to draw a charge against Giannis Antetokounmpo. It looked like a charge, but the officials felt he flopped, leading to a no-call and an easy bucket for the former league MVP. That made it 6-3 in favor of the visitors.
At the 8:29 mark, Antetokounmpo swished an open three from above the break to extend the Bucks' advantage to 10-3. Tatum hit one nearly a minute later to make it 10-6.
But when Brook Lopez matched it at the other end, Ime Udoka called for a timeout.
The Celtics opening the game 2/9 while the defending NBA champions look poised isn't an ideal start, and the crowd's concern is obvious.
But after the break, Al Horford set a terrific screen, taking out Matthews, freeing up Jaylen Brown for an open three from above the break to make it 13-9. After that, Brown earned two points at the rim, cutting Boston's deficit to 13-11.
With the score 17-11, Tatum drilled a three over Antetokounmpo from 27-feet, prompting Mike Budenholzer to halt play.
At the 3:39 mark, Antetokounmpo swung the ball to Bobby Portis for a three at the right-wing to extend Milwaukee's advantage to 20-14. Then, Antetokounmpo got two points on a floater, giving the Bucks ten from within the paint and an eight-point lead.
With 2:19 left, Smart took a hard fall when Antetokounmpo got fouled on a drive, resulting in him going into Smart's legs as he was in the air. He shook off his wrist and stayed in the game, and Antetokounmpo made both free throws, putting Milwaukee ahead 24-14.
The Bucks then got whistled for illegal defense, giving Tatum a shot at the charity stripe he converted.
With 39 seconds remaining, Payton Pritchard came off a screen at the left wing and stepped into a three to bring Boston within six, 24-18. But at the other end, Brook Lopez grabbed a Holiday miss and sank the put-back to extend the Bucks' lead to 26-18.
Brown rejected a Daniel Theis screen, drove middle, and hit a floater from 11-feet to make it 26-20 at the end of one.
Celtics Attack the Rim; Shoot Well on Open Threes, and Hold the Lead at Halftime
The second frame got off to a sloppy start for the hosts as Tatum lost the ball, committing a dead-ball turnover, and the Bucks grabbed two offensive rebounds before Lopez scored, giving him nine points and putting Milwaukee on top 28-20. That also prompted coach Udoka to bring Horford back in the game for Theis after a three-minute breather.
At the 9:41 mark, Tatum buried a shot from above the break to bring Boston within two, 30-28. At that point, he was 3/3 from beyond the arc.
With 8:49 to play in the period, Brown attacked the basket, earning two points at the rim and drawing the third foul on Portis. He couldn't convert on the free-throw, though, keeping the score stayed tied at 30.
Pritchard then came off a Tatum screen, got to the hoop, forcing Antetokounmpo to step up, leaving Horford open for a dunk. That gave the Celtics a 32-30 lead and prompted coach Budenholzer to take a timeout with the TD Garden crowd going crazy.
With 8:02 left, Horford picked up his second foul, trying to thwart a Grayson Allen drive. Allen went 1/2, making it 32-31 Boston. Horford stayed in the game.
With 6:30 left in the quarter, Antetokounmpo shoved Williams, picking up an offensive foul, his first personal, which delighted the home crowd.
After a Celtics timeout, Smart delivered a cross-court hook pass to Williams for an open three from the left corner that the third-year forward knocked down.
Tatum then drilled a three from the left wing on their ensuing possession. That made it 38-37 Boston.
At the 3:17 mark, Horford fouled Antetokounmpo as the latter drove to the rim, sending Antetokounmpo to the line and Horford to the bench with three fouls. Antetokounmpo went 1/2 at the charity stripe to give Milwaukee a 40-38 lead.
Tatum then tied it with a drive to the cup, finishing it with a euro-step past Lopez, twisting his right hand to lay the ball in off the left side of the backboard.
With 2:10 to go, Theis swatted an Antetokounmpo shot, igniting a Celtics' fast break. Brown couldn't get his layup to stay down, but Smart was there to slam home the put-back, putting Boston ahead 42-40.
With 51.3 seconds left, Williams stepped into an above-the-break three that gave the Celtics a 45-43 lead.
With slightly over 30 seconds remaining, Tatum tried to step around Allen as he went in for a transition layup, but he got whistled for his third foul. That prompted coach Udoka to halt play and challenge the call.
Unfortunately for Boston, the challenge was unsuccessful. It was the right call with Allen's feet set in time and him in a legal guarding position as he took an elbow from Tatum, who then sat the remainder of the half.
With 0.9 left, Smart stripped Antetokounmpo and went up for a shot in front of half court, earning three free throws and drawing the second foul on Antetokounmpo. Smart then made all three shots to give the Celtics a 48-43 advantage at halftime, their largest lead at that point.
Tatum and Antetokounmpo led all scorers with 17 points at the break. Williams had 11, and Brown had ten for Boston. Lopez's 11 points were the second-most on Milwaukee.
While the Celtics were shooting only 35.6 percent from the field, they knocked down 9/22 (40.9 percent) of their threes. They assisted on 11/16 makes, produced 14 points in the paint, and scored 13 off turnovers.
As for the Bucks, led by the former league MVP, they scored 24 points in the paint and 11 on fast-break opportunities.
Boston had to be encouraged about leading in spite of not shooting well and giving up 17-first half points to Antetokounmpo. But the Celtics also had to have concern about Tatum and Horford picking up three fouls.
Also, Holiday went 3/10, including 0/3 from beyond the arc, scoring only six points in the first half. It's paramount Boston continues containing him in the final two quarters.
Celtics Score 31 in Third Quarter, Hold Bucks to 21, Take 15-Point Lead into Final Frame
Brown started the second-half scoring with a pull-up jumper from 18-feet to give Boston a 50-43 advantage. Williams then drilled a three from the left corner, putting the Celtics up by ten.
Boston's ensuing possession, Tatum buried a three from the left wing to make it 56-45.
The next time down, after Lopez knocked down a jumper from 13-feet, Tatum missed a three from the same area as his last shot, but Williams got the board, leading to a three from Brown at the right wing, putting the home team ahead 59-47, prompting coach Budenholzer to take a timeout.
Coming out of the break, Holiday cashed in on an open jumper from 16-feet after utilizing a screen from Antetokounmpo. But at the other end, a well-designed set play created an alley-oop from Tatum to Brown, who scored and got fouled by Holiday. He couldn't capitalize on the free throw, but the layup gave Boston a 61-49 advantage.
At the 8:19 mark, in spite of having three fouls, Tatum held his ground and blocked a Matthews transition layup, sparking a fast break that got Smart to the free-throw line. Boston's floor general made both shots, and the Celtics went ahead 63-51.
With 7:44 to play in the period, Tatum hit a floater but got whistled for elbowing Pat Connaughton. Not only was it Tatum's fourth foul, but Connaughton got away with contact on the former's arm before the elbow. White came in for Tatum.
With 7:23 remaining, after White stripped Antetokounmpo, Smart found Horford for a layup, putting the home team ahead 65-53. Then, the next time down the floor, Williams drilled a three from the left corner, extending the Celtics' lead to 68-55.
While going for a rebound a couple of minutes later, Brown got fouled by Holiday, resulting in a hard fall on the parquet. He stayed down for a while to regroup, but appeared ok. Either way, it would've taken far more to take him out of the game. The foul was Holiday's fourth, and shortly after that, George Hill subbed in for him.
At the 5:04 mark, Antetokounmpo tried to plow through multiple Celtics defenders, but Smart held his ground, drawing a charge on the former league MVP. But coach Budenholzer successfully challenged the call, sparing Antetokounmpo from picking up his third foul. The ruling stated there was no foul on anyone on the play.
With 3:42 left, a Horford drive produced a dunk for Williams, giving Boston a 71-58 lead. Antetokounmpo pushed the pace off the make, but missed a layup. On the other end, Smart earned a trip the line, where he went 1/2.
Antetokounmpo got a put-back dunk after a missed three by Allen to make it 71-60, but Brown countered with a layup. Williams then buried a three from the left wing, giving the hosts a 76-60 advantage, prompting coach Budenholzer to take a timeout. It was Williams' sixth three, and it gave him 22 points.
In the final minute, Holiday connected with Antetokounmpo on an alley-oop. But at the other end, Smart drove, kicked the ball to Horford in the opposite corner, and Horford swung it White, who swished a three from the left wing, extending Boston's lead to 79-64, a score that held firm entering the final frame. It was also White's first field goal of the game.
Celtics Blow the Game Open in the Fourth Quarter
Holiday scored the first points of the fourth quarter, quickly getting a layup to trim the Bucks' deficit to 79-66. But at the other end, Williams connected on his seventh made three of the game, giving him a career-high 25 points and pushing Boston's lead to 82-66.
At the 10:46 mark, Connaughton got two points at the rim, but Tatum responded, creating an open jumper off the dribble, burying the shot from 14-feet. That made it 84-68 Celtics.
And on Boston's next possession, when the double team came, Tatum found Pritchard for a three at the right wing that extended the home team's advantage to 87-68, prompting coach Budenholzer to halt play.
After the break, an Antetokounmpo layup got waved off because Lopez grabbed Tatum as Antetokounmpo drove to the basket. The ensuing Celtics possession, a drive from Tatum resulted in a trip to the free-throw line, where he went 1/2, pushing Boston's lead to 88-68 with 9:06 remaining.
Holiday responded, attacking Pritchard off the dribble, getting him to bite a pump fake and scoring on an up-and-under move. With 7:38 left, Tatum turned the extra attention he got into an open three for Pritchard, who swished it from the right wing, giving the Celtics a 91-70 lead.
He did the same thing the next time down, putting Boston ahead by 21, 94-73. Then, with 6:02 left, Williams did an outstanding job contesting a Portis transition layup without fouling, winning a one-on-one battle between the two.
And at the 5:20 mark, Pritchard found Smart for a three from the right corner that extended the home team's advantage to 97-75, prompting another timeout from coach Budenholzer.
With 3:40 remaining, Antetokounmpo stripped the ball from Tatum and went in for a dunk at the other end, making it 97-77. But with 2:26 left, Williams drilled his seventh three of the game, extending Boston's lead to 101-77. Coach Budenholzer emptied his bench shortly after, and the Celtics were on to the eastern conference finals.
As the game came to a close, Mike Breen dropped a remarkable stat on the ESPN broadcast, stating this will be the 74th eastern conference final, a round that the Celtics are advancing to for the 37th time. They're 21-15 in their first 36 trips there.
Bringing it back to what unfolded on the court, in Game 7's, a role player often steps up to push their team to victory, as Kelly Olynyk did by scoring 26 points against the Wizards in 2017. Today, Grant Williams earned that distinction. Williams, who struggled with his jumper when he entered the NBA, knocked down 7/18 (38.9 percent) threes, scoring a game-high and a career-best 27 points.
On the heels of his 46-point performance, Tatum registered 23 on 7/14 shooting, including going 5/9 (55.6 percent) on threes and 4/5 at the free-throw line. The three-time All-Star also dished out eight assists, making Milwaukee pay for double teaming him in the fourth quarter. He also grabbed six rebounds.
After Brown scored 22 on Friday, he generated 19 in Game 7, making 8/16 shots. He also corralled eight rebounds and came up with two steals. As for Boston's floor general, Smart scored 11 points to go with a game-high ten assists, and seven rebounds.
And when it comes to Boston's fifth starter, the team's elder statesman, Horford's six-point, ten-rebound, six-assist performance won't jump out at people. But his defense against Antetokounmpo was outstanding again, leading the way as the Celtics limited him to 25 points. Horford's ability to slow the former league MVP down this series, making him work for nearly everything he got, was equally vital as it was remarkable.
Boston also got a significant boost off the bench from Pritchard, who had far and away his best game this series. The second-year guard scored 14 points on 5/7 (71.4 percent) shooting, including 4/6 (66.7 percent) from beyond the arc. He also grabbed five rebounds and distributed three assists.
As a team, the Celtics made 22/55 (40 percent) of their threes, capitalizing on the Bucks daring role players such as Williams to make them if left open. After the game, Ime Udoka said his message to Williams was, "Let it fly. They're disrespecting you more tonight than earlier in the series."
Boston also assisted on 29/37 field goals (78.3 percent) and outscored the Bucks at the free-throw line, going 13/18 (72.2 percent) compared to Milwaukee's 11/16 (68.8 percent). Antetokounmpo only taking six foul shots (4/6) will go down as the most surprising development from Game 7.
Defensively, the Celtics had their best game of the series, holding the Bucks to 81 points, their lowest-scoring output. Boston was the more physical team tonight, played with tremendous energy, and did an excellent job communicating, challenging what seemed like every shot Milwaukee hoisted.
The Bucks made only 36.7 percent of their field goals and 4/33 (12.1 percent) from beyond the arc. To their credit, they generated 48 points in the paint and scored 17 on the fast break. But in the second half, Boston went from committing ten turnovers to four and did a much better job defending in transition, limiting Milwaukee to five points off turnovers after they produced 13 in the first half.
And with Antetokounmpo scoring "only" 25 points and Holiday finishing with 21 on 21 shots, going 0/6 on threes, it was highly-unlikely the Bucks would win this game.
The Celtics played their best game at the ideal time, earning them a conference finals rematch from when they faced the Heat in the bubble.
The Celtics' eastern conference finals series against the Heat starts in Miami Tuesday night at 8:30 ET. Inside The Celtics will have content related to the game coming out before, during, and after. And follow @BobbyKrivitsky on Twitter for updates and analysis from pregame to post.