MILWAUKEE -- Before important games, a Bucks front-office staffer often shoots a text message to a few of the Milwaukee Bucks' players. "Don't play with your food," he will write. "Put that child to sleep early tonight."
The messages are meant to be friendly reminders to players that the staffer believes they possess the talent to beat anyone but to not mess around. The subtext of the texts: Respect your opponent enough to strike early. Don't wait around to make a run.
Milwaukee heeded those words in Wednesday's 116-91 Game 5 win against the Boston Celtics, and the Bucks will now appear in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2001.
After a series peppered with slow first quarters, the Bucks set the tone early Wednesday, beginning with an 8-0 run. And Milwaukee held Boston to only 19 points in the first quarter, the fewest the Celtics have scored in an opening quarter this postseason.
"It's a big moment for our franchise, our city and ourselves," Khris Middleton said after the victory.
The texts seemed to sink in even before the opening tip, as the team was quietly focused.
Giannis Antetokounmpo waved off cameras filming him watching game tape in the locker room. He needed space to focus, he explained. Malcolm Brogdon, who played for the first time since he suffered a plantar fascia injury March 15, purposely avoided the locker room while media members were present before the game. He didn't want distractions either. And Antetokounmpo gave a speech to his teammates before the game, firing them up for what was about to unfold.
Antetokounmpo finished with 20 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists. Middleton had 19 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists. Eric Bledsoe had 18 points, 6 rebounds and only 2 turnovers. Brogdon scored 10 points in 17 minutes.
As they have all series, the Bucks' bench players also provided an extra punch by outscoring Boston's back-ups by eight points.
"Everybody was ready to play," said George Hill, who scored 16 points. "Everybody was ready for the opportunity to put them away as quickly as we can."
Last season, Boston was the hurdle Milwaukee couldn't clear. This season, many again believed the Celtics would be the Bucks' demise. And if they could muster a series win, that would prove the Bucks are no longer the cute story of a superstar surrounded by four nameless players incapable of playoff success.
In many ways, Wednesday's performance was the exclamation point on the sentence "We've arrived!" Milwaukee now has the most 20-point wins (five) through the first nine games of the playoffs in NBA history, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"I think there's still going to be a lot of people who are going to doubt us," Antetokounmpo said. "But we're really hungry to achieve our goals. That's all I can care about."
"Bucks in five" chants echoed through the crowd halfway through the fourth quarter. After the seconds ticked down and the final buzzer sounded, a celebratory video played. The crowd roared, Antetokounmpo shook his fist in the air, and at center court a board was updated from "9" to "8" in counting down how many more wins the Bucks need for a championship.
In the locker room, players high-fived one another, coaches hugged and general manager Jon Horst gave congratulatory handshakes. Music blared as the players dressed.
Milwaukee now awaits the winner of the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors series. The Bucks will celebrate Wednesday night. But just as they did after they clinched the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, and after winning their 60th game, and after sweeping the Detroit Pistons in the first round, the Bucks will give themselves only one night to enjoy it.
"Our season is still going," Middleton said. "We're going to be facing a good team whoever it is next round. We'll start getting ready for the next series."