“Good old Game 7. Beautiful.”
That was how Giannis Antetokounmpo described the final step in what has been “the real NBA Finals” — the highest level of play in the second round, with two evenly matched teams in an intense and physical series. The defending champion Milwaukee Bucks vs. the Boston Celtics has been must-watch basketball. Maybe Miami or Phoenix or another team still alive can rise to the level of these teams when challenged, but nobody has done it yet. This has been brilliant basketball.
Game 7 Sunday in Boston — 3:30 p.m. Eastern on ABC — will be a barnburner. Here are three things to watch for that will likely determine who advances and who is sent to an early vacation.
1) Can Celtics limit turnovers, keep Bucks out of transition?
The Bucks have struggled all series with their halfcourt offense going against the long and high IQ Boston defense (even without Robert Williams). Milwaukee has an 84.4 offensive rating in the halfcourt this series, the worst of any team in the second round of the playoffs and 10 points below their regular season average. This is where they miss Khris Middleton (who is not expected to play in Game 7 due to his sprained knee).
The Bucks have thrived when they can get stops and run — particularly when they force turnovers. In Game 6, the Celtics had four turnovers in the first quarter, but then just four more the entire rest of the game and Boston won by as comfortable a margin as anyone is going to in this series.
If Antetokounmpo is out in open space, getting downhill early in the clock and Euro-stepping to the rim, he is unstoppable. On the other hand, if the Celtics can slow the pace of the game down and turn it into a grinding halfcourt contest, things bend to their favor. Which team can control the pace of the game will determine a lot.
2) Jrue Holiday vs. Jaylen Brown
We are assuming that both Jayson Tatum and Antetokounmpo are going to be brilliant — as they were in Game 6 — and essentially play to a standstill.
Then it becomes about supporting casts and which plays better. Specifically, which No. 2 option — Holiday or Brown — steps up and makes critical plays.
Brown averaged 22.5 points and 7.2 rebounds a game and had a string of big shots in the Celtics’ Game 6 win. Holiday, forced into a larger playmaking role with Middelton out, has averaged 21 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6 assists a game, plus he has played strong defense (he had the critical block then steal from Marcus Smart at the end of Game 5).
Brown and Holidays have come up big all series, but players tend to get tight in Game 7s. Which one can overcome their nerves and the moment to make a couple more critical plays down the stretch?
3) Which unexpected hero steps up?
Game 7s are weird. Guys get tight under the pressure. Or they try to do too much. Every possession comes with intense pressure.
Out of that pressure, unexpected stars are forged. In Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals — a game with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and other stars on the court — Metta World Peace made the game-winning play.
Who will that be in Game 7 Sunday? Does Pat Connaughton get hot from 3 for the Bucks, or Marcus Smart for the Celtics? Does Jevon Carter — who should get some run from Mike Budenholzer, certainly over Grayson Allen — make a few big defensive plays? Or maybe it’s Bobby Portis. Or Derrick White for Boston.
The list goes on, but someone unexpected will step up and dramatically impact this game. Whichever team has that player likely will advance.