MILWAUKEE – The Milwaukee Bucks were less than 24 hours away from Game 1 of their first round Eastern Conference Playoffs matchup against the Boston Celtics. They had just finished off their final preparations at their practice facility in Milwaukee and players were shuffling off the floor at a hurried pace to get ready for their flight to Boston.
Many of the players had already chatted with the media, so they walked past the waiting media unbothered. Bucks center Thon Maker was not one of those people, but when he walked by, no one asked for his perspective on the series or his opinion on what could swing the series in Milwaukee’s direction. Despite that, Maker gave a polite cordial greeting, which was met in kind, before being asked a single question.
Are you ready?
“You know I’m ready,” Maker said as he walked past. “This is my f**king time.”
The statement was preposterous. By the end of the season, Maker had largely fallen out of head coach Joe Prunty’s rotation. A groin injury kept him on the inactive list for four straight games at the end of March. He was then inactive for two games before getting back on the floor in the final three games of the season. In those games though, Maker saw time in experimental two-big lineups and then a few minutes in mop-up duty.
There was little, if anything, suggesting Maker would factor into Prunty’s playoff rotations. The Bucks traded for Tyler Zeller at the trade deadline and he had sopped up many of the minutes at backup center. John Henson appeared in 76 games, the most in any of his six NBA seasons. Yet, there was Maker, saying the playoffs were his time, even though he literally might not get any time on the floor.
“Just last year's experience in the playoffs,” Maker said when asked why he had that type of confidence heading into the playoffs. “I saw how my energy and positivity changed the whole season. Right from when coach Kidd put me in in the regular season and leading into the playoffs, I saw how it transformed the organization.”
“I try to be positive every single time – when I'm on the sideline, I'm on the court, if I'm hurt, if I'm active, if I'm not playing – I find a way to get us going as a team.”
Maker did not see the floor in Game 1 and only played the final minute of Game 2 after the game was out of reach. John Henson went down with a back injury before Game 3 and, thus, Maker had an opportunity.
In Game 2, Celtics coach Brad Stevens unveiled a new offensive game plan for the Celtics, which was heavy on dribble handoffs, pick and rolls, and weaving action in the middle of the floor. As Bucks defenders went underneath the action on ball handlers or tried to fight through it, the Celtics found open driving lanes and good looks, ultimately torching the Bucks’ defense.
In an attempt to stymie the Celtics’ offensive attack, the Bucks turned to a defensive game plan seemingly tailor-made for Maker’s skills in Game 3.
And it worked. Maker was all over the floor defensively.
30 seconds after entering the game, he collected his first block on Jaylen Brown.
THON MAKER 😱 pic.twitter.com/1VeJ6XXDen— FOX Sports Wisconsin (@fswisconsin) April 21, 2018
Three minutes later, he collected two blocks in four seconds of game action as he swatted a Jayson Tatum drive out of bounds and then a Greg Monroe off the glass just a few moments later. Maker tallied five blocks in total as he challenged everything the Celtics tried to do, despite being concerned he might not be able to find his way in the series.
“I didn’t have a feel for the series,” Maker said. “I didn’t have a rhythm. It was really difficult because I didn't get any game reps on it. We can go through the walkthroughs and stuff like that, but I had to go in cold and be ready to execute it.”
The Bucks struggled to execute defensively this entire season, but that hasn’t been the case this series. With Maker on the floor, the Bucks are allowing just 102.3 points per 100 possessions, a number in line with what the league’s Top 5 defenses allowed during the regular season.
“I think people always talk about the energy with Thon, but that’s selling him short,” Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “I think that’s a knock. Thon is skilled and very productive. I think he’s super talented.”
No matter how hard Tyler Zeller works – and he does work hard, he is not making this block on a Jayson Tatum drive in Game 4. Maker is just so full of hair on fire, run all over the court energy that what he actually does on any given play can get overshadowed.
Throughout this series, Maker’s ability to stick with Celtics guards and wings has transformed how the Bucks defend. Tatum has made Bucks defenders look silly all series long with a variety of tough shots, but on this play, he sees Maker on him, believes he can drive, and ultimately gets stuffed at the rim because of Maker’s foot speed and length.
“I was talking with Khris about the switches and he said something that is really important that really made sense,” Antetokounmpo said after Game 4. “When we switch, they play ISO game and that's not what Boston wants to do. Boston wants to move the ball. Play set games and execute. So, by switching, we make them play one-on-one, so that's what we want them to do.”
Maker’s skills have had a transformative effect on the Bucks defense against the Celtics, but the effort Brogdon mentioned Maker so often getting credit for should not be ignored. It’s very real.
With 1:52 left in the first quarter of Game 3, Maker contested a Monroe drive at the rim. Middleton grabbed the rebounded the ball and started the Bucks fastbreak. Maker sprinted as hard as he could down the middle of the floor past Middleton and a running Jabari Parker to attempt to post up Shane Larkin in the middle of the lane. His movement opened up Eric Bledsoe for a left wing three. He missed.
Maker immediately made his way down the floor and planted himself at the top of the key to meet Marcus Morris, who had the ball, as well as his assignment, Monroe. As Morris and Monroe immediately started a pick and roll, Maker switched onto Morris and forced a turnover as Morris tried to drive to the basket.
Middleton took the ball the other way on a two-on-one fastbreak with Bledsoe. Maker broke ahead as quickly as possible, but didn’t get there in time for a rebound. He arrived as Morris secured the rebound. With Tony Snell as the lone Bucks player back to defend the coming onslaught of Celtics, Maker had a choice to make.
“We had an offensive miss and I couldn't sprint back because I was dead tired,” Maker said. “And then I was like, ‘Nah, f**k it.’ And I just took off and sprinted back and we slowed down their transition and found a way to get a stop. Plays like that, there's a lot I can recall, where I can go back to and say, ‘Don't give up on a play.’"
Snell stopped the ball and then the rest of his teammates got back. They recovered and moved together and eventually Monroe was whistled for three seconds in the lane. The play would not be reflected on the stat sheet in any way for Maker. No one will pat him on the back for it because it’s the play he was supposed to be make, but his end-to-end sprints are symbolic of the way his play has dramatically changed the series.
Maker has been decisive, relentless, energetic, and fierce. He has been the player he found during last season’s playoff series against the Raptors. And he has been the player that his teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo has always believed in more than anyone else.
“It means a lot,” Antetokounmpo said of Maker’s performance in Game 3. “Thon, for me, is like my little brother. We had the conversation earlier. Like two weeks ago, I told him he's gotta bring that killer mentality back. He was hungry. I think he lost that for a little bit, but tonight he showed how much he wants it. He did a great job just coming in and giving everybody energy, blocking shots, making shots, running, hitting guys.
“I was proud of him and hopefully he can carry that into Game 4 because we definitely need this guy. He's a big piece for us and he just keeps getting better.”
The Celtics will continue to look for ways to counter Maker’s success. After Game 4, he discussed how the Celtics have gotten more physical with him. And how they’ve started to drive to the basket when he is fronting a post player. And how they’ve stretched him out further away from the basket when he’s switched onto guards and wings.
He had discussed the possibility of each of those adjustments with assistant coach Sean Sweeney before the game and felt prepared for them, but knew he was going to have to work that much harder to make an impact. The same thing will be true for the rest of the series and he knows it. When asked how he could possibly work harder or give more, he shook his head and pointed to the message on the gray wristband on his left hand.
The wristband reads, “I didn’t come here to lose.”
It just might be Thon Maker's f**king time after all.