Irving and Antetokounmpo traded big games when the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks split decisions in Milwaukee to open their Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series.
Now the scene shifts to Boston for Game 3 on Friday night, with the best-of-seven having become a best-of-five and the fourth-seeded Celtics holding the home-court advantage over the top-seeded Bucks.
“This is what I signed up for,” Irving insisted to reporters at practice during the two days off between games. “This is what Boston traded for me for: being able to go back in the trenches, get ready for another battle.
“You know, this is what you live for. Basketball is fun when it comes like this, when you have to respond. This is the type of basketball you want to be playing this time of year.”
Irving was the driving force in Boston’s surprisingly easy 112-90 romp in Game 1, but then was a non-factor in Milwaukee’s bounce-back, 123-102 triumph in Game 2.
The Boston star took 21 shots in a 26-point effort in the series opener, but then was a victim of both teams changing tactics in the rematch, getting just nine points.
In Game 2, Mirotic teamed with Lopez and Bledsoe for 40.
The move to beef up an attack that had produced 90 points on 34.8-percent shooting worked. But, equally important, the Milwaukee defense also improved, and Mirotic, not considered a strong defender, played a role.
The Celtics attacked Mirotic’s matchup with Jaylen Brown early and often. And while Brown was able to get Mirotic in some foul trouble, going 6 for 7 on free throws after not going to the line in Game 1, more Brown meant less of Irving, and that’s a tradeoff that worked for the Bucks.
“I thought Niko was great,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said at his postgame press conference. “I thought he added a little bit of an energy and an effort, a little physicality. His defense is what stood out to me.”
Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo carried a bigger burden offensively. After shooting 7 for 21 and scoring 22 points in the first game, he went for 29 points on six fewer shots (7 for 15) in Game 2.
He also shot 2 for 4 on 3-pointers as the Bucks bombed in 20 of 47 (42.6 percent) after going 10 for 28 (35.7 percent) in Game 1.
The Celtics had the seventh-best 3-point defense (34.1 percent) at home during the regular season, and limited Indiana to 31.1-percent shooting from beyond the arc in two home games in the first round.
The teams split games in Boston during the regular season, with the Celtics winning 117-113 in November and the Bucks prevailing 120-107 in December.
Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon (plantar fasciitis) remains listed as out for Friday, though his status could be updated before the game. Brogdon appears to be close to a return after missing the last month and a half, dating back to the regular season.