The script looked very familiar, but the Milwaukee Bucks altered the ending this time around.
Just like Wednesday night in New York, the Bucks fell behind by over 20 points only to watch their bench put themselves in a position to win the game late. But unlike against the Knicks, Milwaukee made the plays necessary to win Friday night and walked away from the TD Garden with a 105-98 victory over Boston.
“It comes down to making plays at the end of the game,” Bucks coach Larry Drew said after collecting his first win with Milwaukee. “A couple of nights ago in New York, we didn’t make the plays down the stretch. Tonight, we made the plays. We really fought hard and put ourselves in position. We did the same thing in New York and just didn’t make the plays.”
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While the comeback was impressive and the win was big, Drew wasn’t pleased with yet another sluggish start. Milwaukee shot just 8-of-26 in the first quarter and allowed Boston to shoot 62.8 percent in the first half to trail by 17 at the half.
Boston’s lead grew to 22 points in the second half before Drew turned to Zaza Pachulia, John Henson and Nate Wolters off the bench. The game completely changed when those three entered the game and the Bucks began chipping away at the deficit.
“We have to figure this out, getting off to such a bad start,” Drew said. “I don’t know if it is a combination of the starters out there; I don’t know what it is right now. I have to get my finger on it. Two straight games we’ve gotten out to just bad starts. The problem has been our offensive execution is putting too much pressure on us. Guys are not moving the basketball, kind of seeking our shots too soon and it’s turning into one-on-one basketball.
“It’s causing us to have to play from behind. We’re going to have to figure that part out, we really are. If I have to change the lineup, we’ll change the lineup. But we have to get into more of a rhythm at the beginning of the game.”
Much like Wednesday, Milwaukee’s bench outperformed its starters and multiple reserves played in crunch time. Drew rode Wolters, Caron Butler, Khris Middleton, Henson and Pachulia for most of the fourth quarter, as starters Ersan Ilyasova, O.J. Mayo, Gary Neal and Larry Sanders sat.
Thrust into action for the second straight game with Brandon Knight and Luke Ridnour out injured, Wolters shined in the fourth quarter. The rookie had seven points and three assists in the final period, finishing with 14 points and six assists on 5-of-10 shooting.
“This whole thing has been a great experience so far,” Wolters said. “It’s unfortunate what happened to Brandon and Luke, but I had to step in and give us a chance to win. We played pretty well in the second half.”
Just three days ago, Wolters was the third point guard expected to spend most of the season learning on the bench. Now he looks to be an important piece moving forward.
Wolters made two of the fourth quarter’s biggest plays, first swiping the ball from Gerald Wallace and then getting fouled on the ensuing fast break. A short time later, Wolters got a pass from Henson, didn’t panic and calmly found Pachulia under the basket for an easy layup.
“I tell you what, he was magnificent,” Drew said. “This kid has really grown in a short period of time. He’s playing with a lot of poise, he’s playing with a lot of composure, he’s making plays, he’s defending.
“He’s just doing a phenomenal job leading our ballclub when we’ve been shorthanded at the point guard position. He was really, really good when he was on the floor. He’s growing up right in front of us.”
While Wolters controlled the game at point guard, Pachulia stabilized things inside. He finished with a game-high 20 points and nine rebounds and made all 10 of his free-throw attempts. Drew challenged the Bucks to become more physical in the second half and felt the shift in physicality started with Pachulia.
Drew’s thought the Celtics “manhandled” the Bucks in the first half on both ends of the floor. A few tweaks to the lineup led to Milwaukee punching back to outscore the Celtics 34-15 in the fourth quarter and 58-35 in the second half.
“What more can you say about the big fella in the middle, Zaza?” Butler said. “He did it all. He can’t jump over a sheet of paper, but he knows how to use his body. He did a great job of closing the game and making all of his free throws.”
Though the Bucks need to figure out what has ailed them in the first half quickly, completing a comeback was important. On a night when Mayo, Sanders and Ilyasova were ineffective, Pachulia, Wolters, Neal, Henson and Khris Middleton stepped up to carry the load.
“We have a really balanced team,” Pachulia said. “Any given night, anybody can be a scorer and have a great night. We played really hard in the fourth quarter to come back from 20 points down. It was a total team effort and this is team ball, so I’m loving it. We played great in the fourth quarter.”
Maybe the most encouraging sign was how into the game Milwaukee was down the stretch, even the starters who were watching the win from the bench. The Bucks have showed tremendous fight in their first two games, even if portions of each game have been hard to watch.
“Coach came in here at halftime and said that we are going to find a way to cut this thing down and get the win,” Butler said. “Everyone believed. That was the reason why we were able to come out and build some momentum in the second half and get this W.
“Your spirits, you just feel a little bit more comfortable with yourself on the flight, playing cards, talking and watching film (after a win). You can smile a little bit instead of just moping and getting ready for tomorrow with a ton of pressure on your back.”