Milwaukee Bucks: Reheating decades-long rivalry with the Boston Celtics

The Milwaukee Bucks’ return to action Friday night was both victorious and may have reheated their long-standing rivalry with the Boston Celtics.

It may have been business as usual, but the Milwaukee Bucks‘ official return Friday night was wholly satisfying on all sorts of levels.

Milwaukee’s 119-112 victory over the Celtics served as a thrilling and entertaining re-entry back into Bucks basketball after being forced off the court for nearly four-and-a-half months due to the coronavirus pandemic. And it also rehashed some long-standing beef between the two parties that first originated back to the respective franchises’ glory years during the 1980s.

The Bucks’ victory certainly wasn’t without some controversy throughout the thrilling finish, all of which centered around Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Antetokounmpo put in a truly marvelous performance that met his MVP standards, but it all could have come crashing down to a halt late in the fourth quarter.

The first incident in question came when Antetokounmpo had initiated some hard contact while dodging a screen set by Celtics center Daniel Theis, who promptly fell to the floor and writhed in pain. Antetokounmpo had just picked up a needless fifth foul moments prior as well, which limited the margin for error and put his availability in jeopardy with the call.

Officials went on to review it for a hostile act and Antetokounmpo got away unscathed as head official James Capers explained after the game that no contact had occurred to the groin area and therefore, no hostile act occurred.

The biggest point of contention came with under 90 seconds to go and with both teams deadlocked at 107, though. A driving Antetokounmpo glided toward the paint and was converting a pivotal bucket just as Celtics guard Marcus Smart hurriedly planted himself in the lane in an attempt to draw a charge.

It initially worked before the play was reviewed and replays showed that Smart was not yet set by the time Antetokounmpo was in the air. After the game, Smart spoke of the incident and implied biases on the part of the officials to keep Antetokounmpo in the game as ESPN’s Tim Bontemps recounted:

“Wish we got a better one,” Smart said when asked if he’d received an explanation for the call. “The excuse was I was late on drawing the charge.

“Quite frankly, I think we all know what that was about. It was Giannis’ sixth foul. [They] didn’t want to get him out. Let’s just call that spade a spade.”

As explained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Matt Velazquez in his recap of the Bucks victory, Antetokounmpo explained his side of the story and was thankful to the stay in the game:

“They saw that he was moving while I was in the air and they overturned the call, so I was able to stay in the game and help my team,” Antetokounmpo said. “But either way, even if I was out of the game, I’d still try to find a way to cheer my team on, but thank God, they overturned the play and I was able to stay in the game.”

By staying in the game, Antetokounmpo was central to the Bucks warding off the Celtics late and re-opening their season with a victory and for it to come over a challenger of theirs in the East was just icing on the cake. But it didn’t stop there as fourth-year Celtics forward Jaylen Brown waded into the waters after the game with a social media post featuring Antetokounmpo and long-standing NBA official Ken Mauer.

The fact that both Brown and Smart have been vocal on what they perceive as biases surrounding Antetokounmpo is far from coincidental. After all, both Celtics players were the most critical of the reigning MVP and his elder brother, Thanasis, for the latter’s dirty chasedown block attempt on Harrison Barnes late into Team USA’s win over Greece during the FIBA World Cup last year.

Combine that with the fact that both the Bucks and the Celtics have met each other in each of the last two postseasons and the friction between the two sides only continues to grow with each passing game.

Antetokounmpo talked about correcting his penchant for picking up ticky-tack fouls at inopportune times, which is all borne out of frustration more than anything. And to be completely fair, there’s no question he got away with one, especially as it relates to the Theis call had the officials originally called for a common foul. Why there wasn’t, well, Capers explained that he didn’t see a common foul.

Of course, Smart is far from the greatest messenger and he continues to live up to his title of the NBA’s premier irritant when plays like this come plenty in his highlight reel.

But all of this just serves as the latest slice between the Bucks and the Celtics’ rivalry, which originally was defined by the Celtics’ greatness and the plucky Bucks’ attempts to slay Goliath all throughout the decade (Milwaukee was the only team to ever sweep a Larry Bird-led Celtics team during that decade).

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Now, the tables have been turned and should both the Bucks and the Celtics meet in the playoffs over the next few months, we should expect some more fireworks and sideshows to go along with the play on the court between the two rivals.

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