BOSTON — Malcolm Brogdon gave heavy consideration to Butler University before committing to Virginia in 2011. There was one thing that left him leery about playing for the Bulldogs: Brogdon was concerned that then-Butler coach Brad Stevens might not be around for his entire college career.
“I knew he was a terrific coach,” Brogdon said. “The problem is I didn’t know how long he was going to be there for. That was really one of my deciding factors why I didn’t go to Butler. A year or two later, he left for the NBA. So maybe it was a good decision.”
As certain as Brogdon was that Stevens would ultimately ascend to a higher level, Stevens said he believed Brogdon had an extremely bright future as well. Six years removed from those recruiting trips, their paths crossed again Wednesday night in Boston and it was Brogdon, the 24-year-old rookie, who made a series of key fourth-quarter shots to lift the surging Milwaukee Bucks to a 103-100 victory over the East-leading Boston Celtics at TD Garden.
“He’s not a rookie,” Stevens said after Brogdon scored six of his 16 points in the final quarter, including a huge jumper over Avery Bradley with 3.9 seconds left. “And I say that with complete respect to him. Like that guy, he knows how to play. He’s known how to play for a long time. He was a tremendous college player who was an ultimate winner and he’s just picked right up where he left off.”
Just two days after elevating to sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics slipped back into a virtual tie with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Maybe the biggest silver lining for Boston is that Milwaukee’s win makes it more unlikely that the Celtics and Bucks will cross paths in the playoffs, as Milwaukee’s length created all sorts of problems for Boston on Wednesday.
After pulling to within one with 28 seconds to play, the Celtics elected to play for a final stop. Late in the clock, Brogdon tried to drive from the top of the arc but Bradley shuffled with him and bumped him outside the paint. Bradley then swarmed and tried to pry the ball free but Brogdon managed to elevate with under a second on the shot clock and splashed a 16-foot jumper while fading away.
The sequence at first looked a little bit like the Bradley vs. Kyrie Irving battle back at the start of the month, when Bradley’s defense helped Boston emerge with a key victory over the Cavaliers.
Boston’s final gasp fizzled when Marcus Smart‘s inbounds pass was tipped by Greg Monroe. Smart then was way off with a buzzer-beating heave after Isaiah Thomas managed to tap the ball to him. A frustrated Thomas, who Smart had been trying to work the ball to, wrestled off his headband in frustration after the Celtics missed an opportunity to assert themselves atop the East.
“It’s frustrating, but we’ve got to move on to the next one,” said Thomas, who scored a game-high 32 points. “We’ve got six or seven games left. We can’t dwell on this loss. We have to figure out the things we didn’t do well tonight and get better at them.”
Brogdon spent much of his night chasing Thomas and trying to make things as difficult as possible — no easy task for a rookie. But it was Thomas who came away offering big praise.
“[Brogdon] made a few plays down the stretch that were big for them,” Thomas said. “That [last] shot, I don’t even think he thought it was going in. We played pretty good defense and it was a shot he had to shoot, so you’ve got to give credit to him and the Bucks.”
Brogdon’s heroics and Boston’s inability to get the ball to Thomas for a final shot spoiled a night in which Thomas etched his name on a couple of more entries in Boston’s record book.
With 20 first-half points, Thomas became only the sixth player in Celtics history to produce a 2,000-point season, joining Larry Bird (4), Paul Pierce (4), John Havlicek (2), Sam Jones (1), and Kevin McHale (1).
If Thomas plays in all seven of Boston’s remaining regular-season games, he has a chance to finish in the top 5 for most points scored by a Celtic in a season. Havlicek holds the team record with 2,338 during the 1970-71 campaign, and Bird holds the next two spots (2,295 in 1984-85 and 2,275 in 1987-88).
Thomas is already on pace to finish with the second-highest scoring average in team history. He’s averaging 29.2 points this season, trailing only Bird’s 29.9 during the 1987-88 season.
Thomas also set a Boston record for 3-pointers in a season, connecting on five triples to push his season total to 223. That topped the previous record of 222 set by Antoine Walker during the 2001-02 campaign.
But on this night, Brogdon and his impossibly poised play was the story for a Bucks team that has won seven of its past 10 games and is now tied with the Atlanta Hawks for the fifth spot in the East with seven games left.
“That’s a tough [last] shot; Avery was all over him,” Boston forward Jae Crowder said. “It was very unfortunate, but [Brogdon] had got downhill a few times before, got a little confident, and made a tough shot.
“I think [Brogdon is] special. He’s a good player. He’s got great size on him, he’s very smart, and very savvy.”
Told of Stevens’ praise and how adamant the coach was that Brogdon doesn’t act like a rookie, Brogdon admitted his four years at Virginia put him in a position to contribute more than your average teenage rookie.
“I think college has helped me. Playing four years of college, you learn a lot, you learn more about yourself than anything,” said Brogdon, who has muscled his way into the rookie of the year conversation. “You have an identity to lean on and a strong foundation coming into the NBA.”
During the 2016 NCAA tournament, it was Brogdon who helped Virginia beat Stevens’ beloved Butler to advance to the Sweet 16. But even that couldn’t stop Stevens from gushing about Brogdon on Wednesday night.
“He has been a winner from Day 1,” Stevens said. “I’m not surprised by Malcolm Brogdon at all. … He’s an impressive young man.”