Celtics guard Marcus Smart said that the referees gave him an "excuse" in explaining their decision to overturn a charge call against reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the closing minutes of Boston's 119-112 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night, a call that would have caused Antetokounmpo to foul out of the game.
"Wish we got a better one," Smart said when asked if he'd received an explanation for the call. "The excuse was I was late on drawing the charge.
"Quite frankly, I think we all know what that was about. It was Giannis' sixth foul. [They] didn't want to get him out. Let's just call that spade a spade."
The play, which came at the 1-minute, 28-second mark of the fourth quarter, would have given the ball back to the Celtics with the score tied at 107. It also would have sent Antetokounmpo to the bench for the rest of the game. Instead, he was given a basket when the call was changed to a block -- a basket that came after Antetokounmpo made a dribble move to fake out Jayson Tatum, then did a Eurostep to get into the lane and to the basket.
After Antetokounmpo made the free throw, Jaylen Brown missed a 3-pointer on Boston's ensuing possession and Khris Middleton answered with a made 3 of his own, giving Milwaukee a 113-107 lead it wouldn't relinquish the rest of the way in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Antetokounmpo said he felt Smart was moving on the play.
"First of all, that's his opinion. But at the end of the day, when I had the conversation with him, I respect him as a player," Antetokounmpo said of Smart afterward.
"I think he's a great player. One thing I respect about him is that he's the first guy on the floor, he trusts his teammates, he plays hard, he guards the best player. So, that's what I told him at the end of the game. I said, 'I respect you, I respect you play hard and I just play hard.' There's nothing more to that. I'm not coming at you, that's not my personality. I just try to stay focused, try to help my team win, and I know that he's going to try to talk all the time and get me out of my game, and I respect that he's doing that because he's trying to get me out of my game. I understand. When I sit down and I calm down, I look back and I understand what he's trying to do."
Antetokounmpo, already one of the most physical and difficult players in the league to officiate, finished with 36 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists. He repeatedly forced the officials to make calls, or not, in the final few minutes.
One minute before the charge that was overturned, Smart wanted a push-off to be called on Antetokounmpo as he drove to the rim for a layup that put the Bucks up 107-105. It was just one of many physical moments between Antetokounmpo and Smart, a likely All-Defensive Team selection, throughout a physical and competitive game that saw the teams combine to shoot 68 free throws and be called for 54 fouls.
Then, after the charge was overturned, there was a review to see if Antetokounmpo had committed a hostile act after he ran into Celtics center Daniel Theis on Milwaukee's next defensive possession. After the review, it was determined that he did not.
"They just said [Theis] didn't get hit in the stomach," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "They said they could not call a personal foul, so that must be when you go to the review to see if it's a hostile act, I guess you can't call a personal foul. That was what they told me. So we moved on."
Referee James Capers told a pool reporter after the game that Antetokounmpo was in a normal defensive stance and touched the belt line of Theis.
"It was not in the groin area, and therefore there was no illegal act on the play," Capers said.
Antetokounmpo then came back down and scored his last points of the night on an and-1 layup in the lane over Theis to ice the game for the Bucks, capping off a dominant individual performance that helped Milwaukee survive without starting point guard Eric Bledsoe and key reserve Pat Connaughton, both of whom remain out as they recover from COVID-19.
Boston, meanwhile, got a dreadful 2-for-18 performance from Tatum, with one of his makes coming when Antetokounmpo actually tipped the ball into the basket himself. Guard Kemba Walker scored 16 points in 19 minutes as he was limited in his return from a sore left knee.
The Bucks, though, were happy to see their star make it through the game and pick up the win.
"Yeah, I mean, I'm human," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said with a smile, when asked if he'd been worried Antetokounmpo would foul out.
"There's so many things happening on the court and I thought it was a good job of officiating to blow the whistle, no call and just try and go and discern what had happened and nothing had happened. And then the block/charge, those are tough calls. I think that's one of the great things about replay and actually had a huge impact. We're fortunate that both of those situations, I guess, correctly were officiated and reviewed."