Thon Maker has been waiting for an opportunity to perform in the NBA playoffs.
Through what can best be described as a challenging sophomore season - one that saw Maker fail to live up to the lofty promise he showed as a rookie - the thought of showing out on the NBA’s grandest stage has been his motivation. Back in January, Maker dreamt of a rematch with the Toronto Raptors. Just last week, the Australian reminded everyone he was ready and willing, if given the chance.
On Saturday morning, with Milwaukee facing a 2-0 deficit in their Eastern Conference series against the Boston Celtics, Maker finally got the break he had been waiting for. After playing just one minute across two games in Boston, Bucks head coach, Joe Prunty, launched Maker off the Bucks’ bench, and into the crucible of a must-win playoff game.
The result was something to behold.
Maker was a destructive force during the Bucks’ Game 3 victory in Milwaukee. His statistical output – 14 points (3-5 from the field, 3-4 from three), 5 rebounds, 5 blocks and plus 23 in 24 minutes – ranks among the best seen from Maker during his two-year career. But no box score could quantify his impact. Quite simply, Maker was amazing.
It all started on the defensive end. His five blocks are obviously, the tangible takeaway from the performance, but this was a complete display that transcended the few shots Maker physically altered at the rim. There was an innate level of execution from Maker that has, quite simply, been lacking for large stretches of the season. His decision-making on the defensive end was sublime. His rotations and help side defence were crisp. He played with a confronting assertiveness that speaks to the potential he has, and the almighty faith a Bucks franchise still has in their 2016 first round draft pick.
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens praised Maker’s impact, calling his energy a contagious force that spread through the Bucks team. Prunty agreed.
“With him tonight, the blocks and the energy,” Prunty explained. “He hit some big shots. He made a lot of plays on both sides of the ball, that are critical in terms of winning the game.”
Four of Maker’s blocks came in a three-minute flurry to end the first quarter. Matched up against Greg Monroe, the exact type of ground-bound opponent that has been his kryptonite all season, Maker burst into action as the small-ball center Milwaukee desperately craved. He was flying around on defence, expertly managing the dual responsibilities of keeping Monroe away from wrestling matches inside, whilst blowing up the Celtics’ perimeter players that schooled Milwaukee in Games 1 and 2 of this series.
While Maker was extremely proficient as a help defender, the greatest strength of his performance came in defending his own position. This has been a vital flaw in his output all season, and a key reason for the lack of minutes after the All-Star break. Opposition five men have beaten him regularly. That was not the case in Game 3.
Plays like this, where Maker is able to leverage his sublime athletic gifts and destroy driving attempts inside, were something that Prunty highlighted after the game.
“The blocks, those plays where he is running from behind. He wasn’t always there meeting somebody, he was staying in the play.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo was proud of Maker’s performance in Game 3. The Greek All-Star called the Australian his “little brother” postgame, before offering a glimpse into their relationship off the court.
“We had a conversation earlier, probably two weeks ago,” Antetokounmpo said. “I told him he has to 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 coming in and giving everyone energy. Blocking shots. Making shots. Running. Hitting guys. I was proud of him. Hopefully he can carry that over to Game 4. We definitely need him.”
Maker’s fellow Australian, Matthew Dellavedova, had an equally impressive performance, as he helped restrict Celtics guard Terry Rozier to his worst offensive performance of the series.
Dellavedova, whose 16 minutes are the most he has played in an NBA game since February 2nd, also garnished attention from the Celtics coaching staff.
“We were on our heels,” Stevens said postgame. “It was their whole team, but Dellavedova and Maker were a big part of that.”
Aron Baynes finished with 8 points and 8 rebounds in 30 minutes for the Celtics.
The series remains in Milwaukee for Game 4, which tips at 3AM AEST on Monday morning.