MILWAUKEE • Game 1 of their National Basketball Association Eastern Conference semi-finals was beginning to slip away from the Milwaukee Bucks when Giannis Antetokounmpo tried to assert himself.
The team's multi-dimensional forward is capable of doing a bit of everything. On Sunday, though, with his frustration mounting in the third quarter, he dribbled before rising toward the basket, only to be stripped from behind by Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum before being met at the rim by another defender, this one as cagey and crafty as they come.
When Celtics forward Al Horford blocked Antetokounmpo's dunk attempt, the symbolism was obvious.
"Our focus," Horford said, "was just to make sure we made it tough on him every time."
There was still plenty of time left in the game, but the Celtics were making it clear that nothing was going to come easily for the Most Valuable Player front runner on Sunday.
In their 112-90 win at Milwaukee, they rendered a player who shades toward the superhuman into someone who looked almost ordinary.
Antetokounmpo, known as the "Greek Freak", paced his team with 22 points and eight rebounds, but he shot just seven-of-21 from the field as the Celtics outscored the Bucks by 24 points when he was on the court.
More play-off games Al Horford (116) has featured in than Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo as the Celtics forward made his experience count in Boston's Game 1 win.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens had highlighted his danger before the match-up, admitting "you have to pay that guy a lot of attention".
While one game is not a trend, there is no question the Celtics, one season removed from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals, are confident. Even as they dealt with drama throughout the regular season, much of it stemming from All-Star guard Kyrie Irving's uncertain future as he heads toward free agency this summer, Boston kept pointing to the play-offs, insisting they would come up trumps then.
Sure enough, after sweeping the Indiana Pacers in the first round, the fourth seeds got off to a dream start against the top seeds - and Horford played an outsize role.
In addition to defending Antetokounmpo for long stretches, he combined with Irving, who led all scorers with 26 points, to pick-and-pop the Bucks to smithereens.
The veteran had 20 points and 11 rebounds while blocking three shots and, citing his versatility, Stevens said post-game: "We've said all year, you can't overstate Al Horford's importance to our team. The numbers back that up."
For all the post-season experience that pair bring to this series - they have combined to appear in 173 play-off games - this is all still fairly new to Antetokounmpo, who took another big leap in his development this season as he led the Bucks to the league's best record.
He was reflective after his first trip past the first round ended in a humbling defeat - the 22-point margin is their worst loss of the term.
However, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer knew the Greek would be tough on himself after "one of the toughest losses we've ever had, all season, especially at home".
In Oakland, James Harden expressed frustration with the referees after their 104-100 Game 1 loss to the two-time NBA defending champions Golden State Warriors, specifically pointing to non-calls on three-point attempts and urging game officials to start awarding him foul shots
Despite his 35 points, the All-Star guard went nine-of-28 shooting, making just four-of-16 attempts from deep, with the hosts closing out aggressively.
But Warriors forward Draymond Green, whose team were led by 35 points from All-Star forward Kevin Durant, brushed off Harden's complaints as hollow and that "refereeing is an inexact science".
REUTERS, NY TIMES