Milwaukee — Al Horford stood his ground as Giannis Antetokounmpo charged his way.
Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks’ MVP candidate, desperately wanted to provide a spark and cut into a second-half lead against Horford’s Boston Celtics in the opener of a second-round playoff series on Sunday. He drove hard into the lane, quickly switched directions and tried to lay the ball up over Horford, who met him at the rim and blocked the shot.
Antetokounmpo corralled the ball and went up a second time only to be met by Horford again, who this time spiked the ball to the court.
The Celtics clamped down on Antetokounmpo all game and cruised past the Bucks, 112-90.
“Our focus was to make sure that we just made it tough on him every time, just making sure he earned everything he got,” Horford said. “I felt like we did a pretty good job of that.”
Kyrie Irving had 26 points and 11 assists, tying his playoff career high, and Horford added 20 points and 11 rebounds to pace Boston, which controlled the game for long stretches while playing stingy defense against Antetokounmpo.
Jaylen Brown chipped in with 19 points and Gordon Hayward had 13 off the bench for the Celtics.
Antetokounmpo scored 22 points but shot just 7-for-21. He didn’t make his first field goal until the first minute of the second quarter.
“It was one of the toughest losses we’ve ever had, all season, especially at home,” Antetokounmpo said.
Game 2 is Tuesday in Milwaukee.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer is expecting his star player to bounce back.
“As great as he’s been, he hasn’t been perfect every night,” Budenholzer said. “He’s hard on himself, so there will probably be some point where I put my arms around him and tell him, ‘You’re going to be great.’”
Khris Middleton had 16 for Milwaukee, which completed a four-game sweep of the Detroit Pistons on Monday and advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001. The Celtics came off a sweep of their own against Indiana.
The Celtics knocked Milwaukee out of the playoffs in seven games last year, winning the final game at home. This year, Milwaukee is the top seed in the East and has home-court advantage throughout the postseason after posting the NBA’s best record, but Boston didn’t play like an underdog in any way.
The Celtics jumped out early, leading by as many as 11 in the opening quarter. Boston shot 52 percent while the Bucks shot only 5 of 19.
The shooting woes continued for the Bucks until midway through the second quarter, when Milwaukee used a 15-0 run to pull even at 40. The teams then traded baskets with the Celtics grabbing a 52-50 lead at the half.
Boston used a 9-0 run in the third quarter to again build a double-digit lead, which grew to as much as 21 as Milwaukee again failed to make shots.
“This is a hard team to play against,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “That wasn’t their best game.”
Irving thinks the Celtics have been rounding into shape in the playoffs after an uneven regular season.
“We were dealing with our ups and downs, but I think we just have an appreciation for the group that we have,” he said.
►(At) Golden State 104, Houston 100: Kevin Durant scored 35 points in outdueling James Harden and the Warriors held off the Rockets in the opener of what is shaping up to be a sensational best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal.
Houston’s Chris Paul was ejected with 4.4 seconds left for a second technical. He had rebounded a missed 3-pointer by Harden that could have tied the game with 9 seconds left and was arguing for a foul.
Draymond Green added 14 points, nine assists and nine rebounds for the two-time defending champion Warriors, who are meeting the Rockets in the postseason for the fourth time in five years and with Houston having never been victorious.
Harden scored 35 points and Eric Gordon 27 after both struggled early finding their shooting strokes for the cold-shooting Rockets. They shot 14-for-47 from long range and were without reserve guard Austin Rivers because of an illness.