Semi Ojeleye's insertion to the starting lineup and Marcus Smart's return from injury have the Milwaukee Bucks on the ropes.
The combination of Ojeleye's stellar defense on Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo and Smart's mere presence after being absent since March 11 – not to mention Al Horford's double-double – were enough to lift the Boston Celtics to a low-scoring 92-87 victory on Tuesday night at TD Garden.
Boston now has a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series, continuing the trend of the home team winning each game.
"We felt like we needed more ball pressure overall, and sothat was the decision to go smaller," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said after the game. "Semi is a guy that's been a versatile defender for us all year; that's a tall task to ask a guy to guard Giannis the whole night."
Smart played 24 minutes in his return from a thumb injury, coming up with nine points off the bench to go along with five rebounds, four assists and three blocks. Sprawled out on the floor in the offensive end with less than a minute to go and the ball in tow, Smart's dish to Horford for a layup with 28.1 seconds on the clock sealed the deal for the Green.
"He obviously brought a great deal to the table for us tonight. He always does," Stevens said.
Smart wasted no time reintroducing himself at the beginning of the game, either, converting an and-one play his very first trip down the floor on offense off an inbound pass from Marcus Morris.
Right back down on the defensive end, he got airborne and intercepted a pass from Matthew Dellavedova intended for Antetokounmpo, swatting the ball away from the Greek Freak in the process.
Smart made an impact on several key possessions for the Celtics in the second half as well. His lob to Horford for an alley-oop stretched Boston's lead to double figures after three quarters, at 72-61.
After the Bucks began the fourth quarter on a 7-0 run, Smart was there in isolation as the shot clock ran down to drive to the hoop and lay it high off the glass as said shot clock expired to give the Celtics a much-needed jolt.
But the superstar of the game was Horford, whose 22 points and 14 rebounds were both team highs. Horford led the Green in scoring for the third time this series, hitting a number of big shots in the fourth quarter to stave off the Bucks. He was 7-for-15 from the field overall and 2-for-5 from 3-point land, where each of his makes came in the second half.
The Celtics led by as many as 16 points in the first half, only to see the Bucks cut it to as close as three in the fourth quarter on multiple occasions. Among the reasons Milwaukee never completed the comeback was Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton's inability to take the game over, much as they had during the first four games of the series. Antetokounmpo had 16 points for the Bucks, a series-low, and Middleton had a quiet 23 – five of his points came in the final minute, the outcome of the game seemingly set in stone.
"Giannis is a heck of a player. You're not going to be perfect against him," Stevens said. "You're not going to hold him down by any means. He makes plays for other people. He's very unselfish if he's not the one scoring."
Jabari Parker continued to play well, if not outstanding, off the bench for Milwaukee with 17 points on 7-15 shooting. But an off-night for Thon Maker (2 points, 1-5 shooting, his lone bucket in the fourth quarter) came at a less-than-ideal time for the Bucks, particularly with the relative down games for Antetokounmpo and Middleton.
Jaylen Brown joined Horford in double figures with 14 points, as did Terry Rozier III with 14 of his own. Marcus Morris continued to play well off the bench, dropping 10 points and grabbing eight rebounds for Boston.
Game 6 is Thursday night in Milwaukee at a time to be determined. If necessary, Game 7 will be back at the TD Garden on Saturday.