Following the Bucks’ 103-101 victory in Game 3, the Celtics were unhappy with the game’s officials.
They believed Bucks guard Jrue Holiday fouled Celtics guard Marcus Smart on a 3-point attempt with 4.6 seconds remaining and that Smart deserved three free throws. Smart and head coach Ime Udoka passionately argued their position on the court, but the officials disagreed and instead awarded him just two. Ultimately, Smart perfectly executed the Celtics’ game plan to make the first and miss the second to give the Celtics a chance to tie the score, but their efforts failed and the Bucks closed out with a win. After the game, the Celtics continued to plead their case.
“He caught the ball, he was turning into his shot, both feet set. You can’t say that was a sweep. You’re going into a shot,” Udoka said. “Poor call, poor no-call. I saw it in person, but also just saw it on film. It’s a shot. Curling into a shot, he’s getting fouled on the way up. Bad missed call.”
On Sunday, the league released its last two-minute officiating report for Game 3 and listed the foul as a confirmed correct call, adding, “Holiday (MIL) commits a foul by making contact with Smart’s (BOS) arms before he is bringing the ball upward toward the basket. A personal foul is correctly called.”
While the final sequence drew most of the attention, it didn’t sound like Boston’s only gripe with the Game 3 officiating. During his postgame media availability, Udoka referenced the highly physical nature of Saturday’s game and his belief that he should be the one complaining to officials, not his players.
“If they’re going to call it that way, consistently on both ends, we got to play through it and not bitch about calls and get back,” Udoka said.
The game’s ever-present physicality was a topic in the Bucks’ media room following Game 3 as well, but neither Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer nor Giannis Antetokounmpo decided to push the topic of officiating when given the opportunity by reporters. Holiday, however, chose a different tactic when asked about Antetokounmpo’s ability to score 42 points efficiently while consistently playing through contact.
“It’s what he does, to be completely honest,” Holiday said. “We didn’t have but half of their free throws, but it was a pretty physical game. I don’t know. Two aggressive teams, two teams that love to sit down and play defense. I imagine it’s gonna be like that for the rest of the series.”
And apparently, Holiday was not alone in that feeling.
The Bucks, as an organization, were not pleased about several things regarding officiating in Game 3, including the disparity in free-throw attempts — 34 for Boston, 17 for Milwaukee — and the Celtics attempting 17 free throws in the final 16:33 of the game (11 times in the fourth quarter), while the Bucks did not attempt a single free throw during that same time period.
“I mean this sincerely: I do respect that, at the end of the day, it is a hard job, right? I couldn’t do their job. You couldn’t do their job,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst said Sunday evening in an exclusive interview with The Athletic. “Officiating is hard, just like playing is hard and coaching is hard, and I think we all have a standard of trying to get better and improve. And at the end of the day, that’s what stood out to me. We have to improve. That wasn’t a quality playoff basketball game, and I think officiating played a role in that.”
While Holiday and Antetokounmpo hinted at how the team felt about the officiating throughout the game and immediately following the game, the organization’s opinion became solidified once it was able to review the statistics and also review the game tape of what was one of the more physical playoff games in recent memory.
“When you start looking at the numbers, it’s just, it’s pretty outrageous,” Horst said. “And I think our players and Boston’s players just deserve to have it be addressed and have it be looked at and to just have some improvement.”
“I understand how hard the job is and things happen, but you just want a fair game at the end of the day. I think the stats really speak for themselves.”
In his conversation with The Athletic, Horst shared a few points that illustrated the team’s perspective.
The list of statistics, shared with The Athletic, started with the overall disparity in free throws for both teams but included further detail into the free-throw disparity in the fourth quarter. For example, using tracking data, the Bucks claimed the Celtics attempted 11 free throws on 14 drives in the final quarter, while the Bucks’ 10 drives resulted in zero free throws.
The Bucks’ breakdown also included a series of statistics for individual players:
- In the first three quarters, Antetokounmpo took 12 shots in the paint and attempted 12 free throws. In the fourth quarter, Antetokounmpo took eight shots in the paint but did not attempt a free throw.
- Holiday became the first player since 1993 to take 30 shots in a playoff game and not attempt a single free throw. Holiday took 14 of his 30 shots in the paint.
- Both Derrick White (eight) and Jaylen Brown (11) recorded single-game playoff career highs in free-throw attempts. White took six shots total, and only two of those shots came in the paint.
“Jrue Holiday, 30 field goal attempts, it’s not like this guy’s a jump shooter only,” Horst said. “He’s a big, physical, strong guard who also, by the way, is an elite getting-to-the-line guy. I mean, he’s in the top, whatever, 80th percentile, 90th percentile in free-throw attempts this season, and probably somewhere around that throughout his career.
“To take 30 shots — which is great, I applaud Jrue for doing everything he could to help our team win yesterday, and he felt like he needed to be that assertive and that aggressive — but to have zero free-throw attempts, that stands out.”
While the overall numbers drew most of the Bucks’ ire, they also took exception to one specific play that went uncalled by officials in the second quarter.
With the shot clock running down on a possession, Grayson Allen tried to shoot a stepback 3 over Robert Williams, but it was blocked into the backcourt. As Allen raced to chase it down, he and Jayson Tatum got tangled up in a fight for the loose ball, and Allen grabbed Tatum’s right hand. The contact sent Tatum to the floor, but the play continued. Allen passed the ball to Holiday, who attempted a contested 3 on the right wing as Allen crashed the offensive glass.
As Holiday’s shot went through the net, Grant Williams came across the lane and threw a shoulder into Allen, which knocked him to the ground.
“These are hard games to officiate. Playoff basketball is hard. All basketball is hard,” Horst said. “And I think, by and large, the physicality of the game and how each team plays has been a benefit for both teams. I think people like to watch that. And it’s a fun playoff brand of basketball.
“But I would just say, and I know they are self-reflective because they are good at their jobs, but the Grant Williams play on Grayson, it’s just uncalled for. Anyone who watched that play knows it was dangerous. Grayson was sore last night. He was sore again this morning. I think he’ll play in Game 4, but it was a dangerous play. It was a non-basketball play. And it’s uncalled for.”
Grand Williams’ body check of Allen went uncalled and largely undiscussed following the game, but the play stuck with Horst a day later and exemplified the type of play the Bucks believe crosses the line of playoff physicality. With two teams that emphasize hard-nosed defense, the physical play will continue, but only time will tell if the officials will allow defenses to be quite as physical going forward, especially now that both teams have raised concerns about it.
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(Photo: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)
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