The Milwaukee Bucks are headed to the Eastern Conference Finals after a 116–91, blowout win over the Celtics on Wednesday. After dropping Game 1 of the second-round series, the Bucks reeled off four straight wins, humbling Boston in the process. It’s a bitter end to the season for the Celtics, who entered the year as the presumptive favorite in the East. After a rocky regular season, Boston was a four seed entering the postseason, and the team’s playoff experience ultimately meant nothing in the face of the talented, upstart Bucks. Most distressingly, with their season on the line, the Celtics folded rather quickly.
There’s plenty of responsibility to go around for Boston’s loss. Let’s start with the obvious: Kyrie Irving. The former NBA champion had an enigmatic regular season, trading stretches of brilliance for public battles with teammates. After spearheading his exit from Cleveland to find room to grow outside of LeBron James, Irving would use his former co-star’s leadership tactics to much less success in Boston. Toward the start of the playoffs, Irving promised his game would go up another notch. During the Celtics’ last three losses to the Bucks, Irving shot a combined 21-of-65, a far cry from the expectations he put on himself.
If Irving wants a future in Boston (which seems like a huge if at this point), he has a lot to clean up about his game, on and off the court. He can’t keep settling for inefficient looks when his number is called. He needs to be more of a catalyst for ball movement when the offense stagnates. And perhaps most importantly, Irving needs to find a way to co-exist with his younger teammates, who seemed to play much better without Irving during last spring’s run to the conference finals.
Again, there was plenty disappointment for the Celtics this series. What happened to Jayson Tatum? The former No. 3 pick seemingly regressed during his second playoff run. In the second round, Tatum averaged only 12.0 points per game on 34.3% shooting from the field, including a ghastly 10.7% from the three-point line. Gordon Hayward, still working himself back into the player he was before his leg injury, followed up a promising first round with a dud against the Bucks, seeing his scoring and efficiency drop considerably against Milwaukee.
Brad Stevens will also now face criticism for seemingly the first time in his career. Stevens was out coached by Mike Budenholzer in Round 2. The Bucks adjusted after their Game 1 loss, switching more on defense, pushing the pace, and finding more ways to spread the floor to counter Boston’s success. Stevens couldn’t find any answers as Milwaukee found its rhythm, and despite having a much more talented roster than a year ago, he couldn’t find ways to jumpstart his offense when it bogged down over the last four games of the series. After back-to-back conference finals berths, Stevens was given his most talented team, and it went out with a whimper against an organization that hadn’t advanced past the first round since 2001.
Boston’s future is not neat. The team has famously hoarded assets, but complications arrive this summer. Do the Celtics offer Irving a five-year max deal? Does he still make sense on a team that needs to develop Tatum and Brown? Do you choose between Kyrie and the younger players? How does that affect the Anthony Davis chase? Does the front office believe Gordon Hayward can become an All-Star again? Meanwhile, amid all of this, Al Horford has an opportunity to become a free agent. Teams are often wise not to overreact to playoff defeats, but it’s realistic to wonder what Boston’s ceiling in the conference is after finishing fourth in the regular season, while its biggest competition all made serious moves to improve.
The offseason answers will come soon enough. For now, the Celtics will have to accept their best effort didn’t bring them anywhere close to the Bucks. Perhaps even more upsetting, when its back was against the wall down 3–1, Boston didn’t even put up its best effort in the face of adversity. For a team that disappointed for an entire regular season, that felt like a fitting coda.