Just moments earlier, the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat were knotted at 114 after Khris Middleton sank all three free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt. It set up a wild finish, one that saw Antetokounmpo foul Butler after the ball had left his hands with no time remaining — a call confirmed by review — and allowed the Heat to walk off with a victory in just the third NBA playoff game ever to end on game-winning, buzzer-beating free throws, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“I tried to make it tough for Jimmy,” he said after a 116-114 loss in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, left the top-seeded Bucks in a 2-0 deficit in the Eastern Conference semifinals. “The refs said there was contact there. Maybe there was, I’ve got to watch the play. It is what it is. I tried to contest the shot, but they said there was contact there so I’ve got to watch play.”
Butler’s recollection was crystal-clear, though.
“It was an iso, Goran [Dragic] made a helluva pass on the inbound, then just wait for the clock to go out,” Butler said after scoring 13 points with six assists. “A step-back jumper and I got fouled, pushed me in the back. Can’t deny that and then I knew I had to make one out of two so I ended up, I think I made both of them and we win.”
Reflecting on the final whistle, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said, “I would say we’re disappointed with the judgment, with the decision, the timing.
“It’s a tough job. I have a lot of respect for the officials and the crew tonight. It’s not an easy job, and of course we have our way of seeing things and we’re gonna disagree, but we need to shift our attention to Game 3 and get prepared for that. Understand that that’s the most important thing right now.”
Crew chief Marc Davis said the foul call was correct.
“He must be allowed the space to land and Giannis contacts him with his left hand on his torso and I felt like it affected his balance and did not allow him the space to land in a normal basketball position,” Davis told a pool reporter postgame. “As a result I judged this to be a shooting foul.”
Middleton, who finished with 23 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds, said he’s never witnessed a game play out in that fashion.
That’s because it hasn’t happened since Game 1 of the 1979 NBA Finals, when Larry Wright made the free throws. Middleton wasn’t born until 1991.
“It’s definitely tough to go out like that, where we didn’t even get a chance at all with no time on the clock,” Middleton said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before in a regular-season or playoff game. So, it’s definitely a tough way to go out.”
Antetokounmpo finished with a game-high 29 points and 14 rebounds on 10-of-18 shooting, but the Heat made it tough. His main assignment was Jae Crowder, who was 1-for-5 with him as his primary defender. Crowder also posted 16 points.
Even after losing to Miami twice in the regular season and now twice in the postseason, Antetokounmpo still sees his team as the only thing that can hold the Bucks back.
“It’s about us. It’s always gonna be about us. That’s why we practice. That’s why we go through our game plan. That’s why we’ve got to come out and play harder. That’s why we’ve got to make more shots. It’s always gonna be about us,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s not about what the other team is gonna do. It might be the Miami Heat now, next round might be a different team, next year might be a different team. It’s always gonna be about us. How can we get better? How can we not repeat the same mistakes? How can we not down the stretch make turnovers? How can we create easier shots? It’s always gonna be about us? It’s never gonna be about the other team that we’re playing.”
The Bucks are the 12th team ever to trail 2-0 in a best-of-seven series after having the best record in the NBA during the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The 11 previous teams all lost that playoff series, and only one of those series went seven games.
ESPN’s Nick Friedell contributed to this report.