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Celtics-Bucks Is an Instant Classic

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As one of the most insightful and entertaining color commentators in NBA broadcasting, Stan Van Gundy has enjoyed a courtside seat for most of the Eastern Conference semifinals, an instant classic slugfest between the Celtics and Bucks that’s loaded with physicality, defensive discipline and an endless stream of twists and turns.

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On Thursday afternoon, I caught up with the former coach for an extended conversation about that series and his own rise in television, where he’s scheduled to work the Western Conference finals on Turner beside Reggie Miller and Kevin Harlan.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SI: All these second-round series have had entertaining stretches, but with Bucks vs. Celtics, you’ve arguably called the best one.

SVG: It’s the best series I’ve seen in years, to be honest. The level of competitiveness and intensity is incredible. In the other series, you know, you see a team that will sort of … I’m not gonna say ‘take a night off’, but maybe have a night where they don’t compete quite as hard as the other nights. But in that series … I mean, those teams don’t even take a possession off. And I really appreciate, to be quite honest, both those teams, both those coaches, and every player on both of those teams and what they’re putting into it and what they’re bringing to the fans in this series.

I think even the fan bases on both sides really respect the other side and are just loving what these teams are doing on the floor.

SI: When you say it’s one of the most competitive series that you’ve seen in years, is that extending to and including the Finals, period point blank?

SVG: Yeah! I mean, look, the level of physicality, people are getting knocked down all the time. You know, Giannis [on Wednesday] night, it looked like he was ringside with Ferdie Pacheco and the cut man over there, to get him back out on the court. It’s just bodies hitting all the time. Nobody gives anybody anything. The best regular season defense was Boston and right now the best postseason defense overall is Milwaukee, and these teams are going at it. It is tough to get a good shot in this series. If you don’t get out in transition you’re playing in the half-court, it is tough to get good shots.

SI: So you’ve had a night to process Game 5. Just broadly, what did you make of it? What was your reaction to that crunch time? It looked like Boston had that game. Did you feel that way when you were watching it?

SVG: No, in fact, I think we said on the air that Milwaukee’s really dangerous, because they’re one of the best three-point shooting teams in the league. They hadn’t shot it well the entire series. But all they need to do is get it going for one quarter. They were 6-for-6 from three in the fourth. And I think Boston, with about five minutes to go in that game, up 10, somewhere in there, just started basically walking the ball up and trying to play the clock. And it was way too early. If you’re not going to start your offense until there’s 10 on the clock against a good defense like that, it’s going to be tough to create good shots.

And so I thought they got a little stagnant while Milwaukee was on the attack—sort of the opposite of what happened in Game 4 when it went the other way, and I think the challenge for the team in the lead is to keep playing. You’re not going to run out the clock for four or five minutes. You just can’t do it. When I thought they might be in control was when Horford had the putback dunk to put them up six.

SI: That was Boston’s last basket.

SVG: But then they came right back down and got a three and, you know, you’re right back into it. I’ve just come to think this year, to be honest, Michael, we’ve seen so many comebacks that they’re not … they just don’t surprise me anymore. You’re down double digits in the fourth quarter. OK That happens all the time now, that teams come back. It’s cliche, but it truly is a 48-minute game now. And you’ve just got to keep playing and when you’re watching it, it’s just not over. I mean, unless you’re up 55 after three, like Memphis was, then it’s over. But a 10 or a 12-point lead with even six minutes to go is nothing.

And fans are catching on! If it was the mid ’90s and it’s a 10- or 12-point game with six minutes to go, people are starting to leave the arena. Now nobody leaves in those situations, because the fans have figured it out. In the regular season you have something like that every night. So it’s just the NBA in 2022.

SI: You can relate to the spot that Boston is in right now. Back in 2009 when you were coaching the Magic, you were in a series against the Celtics in the second round, tied 2-2 with a 14-point fourth-quarter lead, and you wind up losing that game by four.

SVG: Yup. We went down 3-2. That’s right.

You then won Game 6. Dwight Howard had a crazy 20-20 game and then you blow Boston out in Game 7. What do you remember about going down 3-2 in that situation knowing you lost a winnable game against the defending champs. They were wounded. They didn’t have KG. You guys didn’t have Jameer Nelson. And you look at Milwaukee right now, Milwaukee doesn’t have Khris Middleton. They’re the defending champs. There’s a parallel there.

SVG: I just remember, you know, it’s a little different situation, because we were down 3-2 and going home for Game 6. That’s a little different situation than Boston, down 3-2 going on the road. And then I just remember Game 7 and having maybe our best game of the entire season. I just remember going into that, I forget what it was, but Boston as a franchise had some incredible record in Game 7s at home. And I also remember leaving the court after Game 6, Paul Pierce yelling at guys on our team “Game 7 ain’t for everybody.” I’ve never forgotten that. And then our guys obviously rose to the challenge pretty well. I wouldn’t say we won it easily, but fairly comfortably.

SI: What do you say to your team after that Game 5? Do you say anything? How do you mentally and psychologically get yourself back up?

SVG: You’re down after the game, quiet plane ride and the whole thing and, you know, nobody’s feeling good. You come in the next day and guys are just serious, watching the film, making the corrections and everything else. And then by game day, they’re ready to go again. We had—and I think it’ll be the same with Boston here—great confidence. Let’s just stay focused, get this game right here and then we’ll go play Game 7 up there. I don’t remember anybody lacking confidence or feeling like we were out of it, or we couldn’t come back or any of that. It was a loss. We knew it was going to be a tough series and you just keep playing.

And I think that’s how these guys will take it, too. I don’t think Milwaukee will think it’s over either. I don’t think they’ll be relaxed. I think these teams, they’re out there playing each other, they know how competitive this series is and how tough it is. And there’s not going to be anything easy so I don’t think you’ll see a letdown. I expect you’ll see another very competitive hard-fought game.

SI: After Game 5, Ime Udoka said that offensive rebounds were the game. Milwaukee grabbed 17, Boston grabbed five. Bobby Portis had seven himself and then, of course, the game winner. Have you ever coached in a situation where your team was just getting bludgeoned on the offensive boards like the Celtics were and how do you strategically deal with something like that?

SVG: Well, there’s no real strategy other than, you know, you can get better rebounders on the floor and your players have to make the adjustment and get more physical blocking people out. Other than that there’s not a whole lot of strategy. It’s get the right people on the floor and implore them to do a better job.

I think in the fourth quarter Milwaukee had seven offensive rebounds and Boston had one. But Milwaukee also went 6-for-6 from three in a series where they hadn’t shot the ball well at all. And Bobby Portis, like, he didn’t even play in the fourth quarter of Game 4 when Boston made the comeback. They played George Hill instead. And I thought it was a good adjustment by Bud to play Bobby Portis. He gave them a little bit more offense and obviously his rebounding was key.

SI: What has surprised you covering the series, be it Milwaukee leading 3-2 without Middleton, Al Horford’s performances, any particular matchups or coaching decisions that have caught your eye?

SVG: Al Horford’s Game 4 I mean, you know, 35 years old to play the best playoff game in your career against a team like Milwaukee and guard Giannis virtually the whole night at the other end, I thought that was incredible. I wouldn’t say it’s surprised me, but it’s been hard even for the best players. Giannis figured it out in Game 5 but that’s really the first good shooting night he’s had. He’s scored a lot of points because he’s taken 28, 29 shots a game. But his percentages, until last night, had been very low. He’s a guy who shoots to 55% on the year and he was shooting 44% going into last night, so it’s been tough on him. If you look at Holiday’s shooting percentages, he shot 50 from the floor and 40 from three during the year. He’s down in the 30s and 20s in this series. I mean it has been a defensive series.

I think Grant Williams in particular, when he’s been matched up individually on Giannis, has surprised me just a little. I always thought he was a good defender. Now I’m wondering if he’s the best defender in the league. Both coaches have made tweaks and adjustments as time has gone on, but nothing real drastic. I basically went out in the fourth quarter and played the same lineup, that smaller lineup that got him the win in Game 4. He played them again in the fourth quarter in Game 5, and it went the other way. So that’s just the way this series has gone.

SI: Speaking of Giannis, I know his shooting numbers haven’t been where they typically are, particularly around the rim. He’s still…



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