Ask any NBA guard who has had the ball ripped from his possession by Avery Bradley -- it's a long list -- and he'll confirm that it's simply Bradley's nature to harass. So when Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton received an inbounds pass in the final second of Tuesday's game against the visiting Boston Celtics, Bradley instinctively swiped at the ball while hoping to ensure Middleton didn't get off a final shot with the score tied.
Instead, Bradley made obvious contact with Middleton's right arm and was whistled for an unforgivable foul with 0.6 seconds to play. Middleton made the first free throw then intentionally missed the second as the Bucks escaped with a 112-111 triumph at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
"He just fouled him," said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, whose team overcame a 19-point fourth-quarter deficit to tie the score in the final minute, including when old friend Jerryd Bayless improbably fouled Kelly Olynyk in a two-point game with one second to play. Olynyk made two clutch free throws and overtime seemed likely. But then Bradley, the hero of Friday's buzzer-beating win over the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers, got overly aggressive in a situation where Stevens most certainly stressed to his team to avoid fouling.
"I thought we had it well-covered," Stevens said. "It's just one of those instinctual things."
Bradley didn't shy away from his transgression, admitting to reporters in Milwaukee that he was "just a little too aggressive." And he wasn't wrong when he added that that one play didn't lose the game for Boston when you consider the way Greg Monroe, shifted to a reserve role, dominated by scoring 29 points on 13-of-21 shooting, also grabbing 12 rebounds over 29:32.
The Celtics had no answer for Monroe for much of the night, trying all sorts of traps and zones but never finding anything that consistently worked. Amir Johnson, who struggled early against Monroe but fared better than those who followed him, had better success during Boston's fourth-quarter rally, but Monroe still dominated the game.
And it will be hard to get past Bradley's foul, if only because it simply felt as if the Celtics were going to find a way to steal a game they had no business stealing. For three quarters, Boston looked flat. The Celtics hadn't lost a game by double digits in nearly two months, but down 19 heading to the fourth quarter, this one appeared a surefire dud.
Boston trailed by 18 with under eight minutes to play, but a nine-point burst cut the lead to single digits and seemed to re-energize the Celtics. All-Star-bound Isaiah Thomas, who had struggled for much of the night, produced an and-one layup with 2:55 to play cutting Milwaukee's lead to four. With under a minute to go in a one-possession game, Stevens called a mid-possession timeout to draw up a play that resulted in a Jae Crowder 3-pointer to tie the score at 109.
A Monroe hook shot with a second to go seemed to be the death knell, but Bayless shoved Olynyk from behind trying to prevent a lob attempt on the ensuing post-timeout inbounds. Olynyk showed good poise knocking down two free throws to tie the score again, but it will be an afterthought.
The Celtics essentially got a taste of their own medicine Tuesday. There have been numerous instances recently where Boston has built a lopsided lead, then let the opponent back in, only to hang on for the win in the end. But it was the fact that Bradley's foul was avoidable that makes this one sting a bit. The Celtics would have had all the momentum heading to overtime, but instead had to marinate on the loss while flying back home for the second night of a back-to-back against a Los Angeles Clippers squad that's 18 games over .500 and playing some inspired ball lately.
Boston, winners of nine of its last 10 entering Tuesday's game, had a chance to hit the All-Star break with momentum. Now the Celtics are going to have to work to prevent entering on a losing streak.
There are positives to be plucked here, particularly the notion that Boston can struggle most of the night and still find a way to rally out of a big hole. But the Celtics' interior defense was exposed a bit by Monroe, and Bradley's foul will be the key highlight from the game.
Stevens was not worried about the mistake lingering with Bradley.
"He's a tough-minded kid," Stevens told reporters in Milwaukee. "He'll be all right."