- Kyrie Irving, the Celtics' All-NBA guard, was 7-of-22 in Boston's crushing 113-101 Game 4 loss to Milwaukee, handing the Bucks a daunting 3-1 series lead.
BOSTON — The boos came down from the capacity crowd on Monday, and believe me: The Celtics deserved them, all of them.
Down 2-1 to Milwaukee, its season effectively at stake and Boston submitted a stinker. With the Bucks holding the door open in an ugly first quarter, the Celtics responded by tripping into it.
Bucks 113, Celtics 101, and a commanding 3-1 lead as this series shifts back to Milwaukee. It was a return to the regular season for Boston, to poor shooting, to unwilling passing, to indifferent defense. The goodwill the Celtics earned by brooming Indiana? Gone. The optimism Boston built in a Game 1 win? See ya. After getting blitzed from beyond the three-point line the last two games, the Celtics decided to make it easy on the Bucks in Game 4. The 66 points Milwaukee scored in the paint isn’t just a staggering number—it’s the most the Celtics have surrendered in a playoff game in the 23 years the NBA has been tracking it. The 39-point, 16-rebound, 65% shooting effort Giannis Antetokounmpo had on Monday? First time someone put all those numbers on Boston in the playoffs, too.
“Honestly, we’re just not doing the things that we talk about consistently,” Al Horford said. “We do it at times, but not quite enough."
What a mess. At the heart of it is Kyrie Irving, the All-NBA guard who implored everyone for months not to overreact to a lackluster regular season, who declared at one of Boston’s lowest points—a blowout loss to Chicago just after the All-Star break—that everything would be OK, because he was there.
Well the playoffs are here, the games count and things are decidedly not OK. Irving had 23 points, 10 assists and six rebounds in Game 4, a respectable output that was overshadowed by the 31.8% Irving shot from the floor and the 14.3% from three. Irving has not shot better than 25% from three since Game 1 and his inefficiency on offense has had a backbreaking effect.
In the last three games, Irving has collected 61 points, needing 62 shots to do it.
“They do a great job of loading, so they’re making the paint look crowded whenever I’m driving or wherever I’m going on the court,” Irving said. “You know, seeing two, three bodies, sometimes four, still kicking out and trying to make the right plays.”
And the shooting struggles?
“Who cares,” Irving said. “It’s a little different when your rhythm is challenged every play down. You are being picked up full court. They are doing things to test you. The expectations on me are going to be sky high. I try to utilize their aggression against them and still put my teammates in great positions while still being aggressive. For me, the 22 shots, I should have shot 30. I’m that great of a shooter.”
He’s not alone, though. Jayson Tatum has struggled. Against Indiana, Playoff Tatum returned. He scored (19.3 points), was efficient from the floor (49.9%) and uber-efficient from three (54.2%). The swagger he had during last season’s postseason appeared to be back. Then came a pair of clunkers to open the second round and three-point shooting numbers in this series (5%) that would make most 7-footers blush. Long Two Tatum, unfortunately for Boston, has returned.
Gordon Hayward has struggled. Terry Rozier—a hero of the last Boston playoff run—has been a disaster. Meanwhile, the Bucks bench has picked Boston apart. In a game-defining third quarter, Milwaukee outscored the Celtics, 33-23. Antetokounmpo—who put up those eye-popping numbers while battling foul trouble in the second half—sat for the final 8:13 of the third. During that stretch, the Bucks outscored Boston 21-13, with the Celtics shooting 23% during that stretch. George Hill (15 points) has been excellent. Pat Connaughton—a local product—provided a boost. The Bucks' second unit, Antetokounmpo says, “has been the difference-maker in this series.”
“I think their bench is just playing excellent,” Brad Stevens said. “It’s not bench versus bench or bench versus starters, whatever you want to call it. Their bench comes in and they have no drop-off. They’ve been excellent, Connaughton has been excellent. George Hill has been absolutely tremendous, hats off to them. We need to all play better on Wednesday.”
Indeed, credit Milwaukee. They took a hook to the chin in Game 1 and have countered with three straight uppercuts. Five minutes into the first quarter and Milwaukee hit its first three. The Bucks trailed 30-22 after one. They had 27 points with a little over nine minutes to play in the second. They responded by scoring 86 points over the final 33 minutes. Antetokounmpo went to the free throw line 22 times in Game 3, drawing gripes from Irving afterwards. In Game 4, he was limited to 10 trips to the stripe, instead destroying the Celtics' interior defense with a blend of spin moves and power slams.
(Aside: Antetokounmpo was 2-5 from three, upping his three-point percentage to 37.5% for the series. If he can duplicate that next season, start engraving his name on the MVP trophy for the next five.)
Runs—Milwaukee has had a bunch of them in this series—have killed the Celtics.
“It really boils down to these runs,” Stevens said. “You had one at the end of the third this time, then we made a nice run to get back in it and then they just answered it right back. They were playing well for a lot of the game, in the last two games and then letting go of it, especially on the defensive end of the floor.”
The series shifts back to Milwaukee, with Boston getting less than two days to figure things out. They need Tatum to be more assertive. They need the bench to step up. They need a defense that has been shredded in this series to glue itself back together.
And they need Irving. These could be the final days in Boston for Irving. He pledged allegiance to the Celtics in October, but has wavered on that commitment ever since. He believed his talent would be enough to will this team to the Finals, but if they lose on Wednesday, he will be a big reason they don’t get there. Irving has had a number of defining games in his career. Wednesday’s will be another one of them.