MILWAUKEE — On nights like these, the Celtics faithful are quickly thrust into the reality that this is indeed a transition season. The Celtics have been maddeningly inconsistent through 19 games and there might not have been a better example than the last two nights,
One night after a resounding wire-to-wire victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics basically crumbled in the final three quarters at the Bradley Center and dropped a painful, 92-85 decision to the downtrodden Bucks, who snapped an 11-game losing streak.
The Bucks, who hadn’t won in 24 days, have three victories this season, two over the Celtics. And Milwaukee will have a chance for a three-peat when they travel to Boston Tuesday.
The Celtics wasted a chance to tie Toronto for first place in the Atlantic Division because they were torched by Milwaukee’s backcourt. The duo of O.J. Mayo and Brandon Knight combined for 42 points on 16-for-28 shooting and five 3-pointers.
The Boston offense, meanwhile, strayed from early success in the paint, and settled for shots from the perimeter. The Celtics missed 15 of 19 3-point attempts and scored just 4 fastbreak points. Jared Sullinger led the Celtics with 21 points but he had just 6 after halftime. Jeff Green and Jordan Crawford each scored 18 but couldn’t help the Celtics overcome Milwaukee’s 11-0 run to open the fourth quarter.
“Offensively we got great looks all night, we didn’t turn the ball over, I thought we moved it against the zone and we just didn’t make as many shots,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “You put a lot of pressure on yourself to make those shots if you give Mayo and Knight looks.”
The Celtics stayed close throughout the third quarter but lost control late in the period when rookie guard Giannis Antetokounmpo drained a 3-pointer after Milwaukee collected a key offensive rebound. He then responded with a streaking dunk off a Zaza Pachulia bounce pass for a 70-61 lead.
Antetokounmpo finished with 10 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists in 28 effective minutes. The Celtics could not match Antetokounmpo’s length (6 feet 9 inches) or that of former lottery pick John Henson (6-11), who grabbed 13 rebounds to go with 13 points.
“We were talking about that, it’s probably the two longest people in the NBA,” Sullinger said. “They are just everywhere. You’ve got to put a body on them.”
Green scored at the buzzer to give the Celtics some hope but backup point guard Luke Ridnour opened the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer on a rag-tag play for a 10-point Bucks’ lead. From then on, the Celtics played frantically, launching long-range jumpers or going one-on-one and straying from their set offense.
Milwaukee, which is 29th in the NBA in points and field goal percentage, shot 46 percent and made 8 of 17 3-pointers.
“The energy wasn’t all the way there tonight,” Crawford said. “They hit a lot of tough shots. We got them again [Tuesday]. I am not going to make any excuses. They were looking for one. They caught us on a back-to-back. They made a lot of tough shots, give them a lot of credit.”
Antetokounmpo, who doesn’t turn 19 until Dec. 6, bothered the Celtics with his ability to run the floor. He finished with 5 points, 3 assists and 3 rebounds in the first half as the Bucks outscored the Celtics, 28-14, in the second quarter. for a 47-41 halftime lead.
A comfortable 27-19 lead for the Bucks was trimmed to 8 when the Celtics scored 6 points in the first 7:30 of the second. Then Mayo and Knight heated up. They were a combined 8-for-10 shooting in the period for 20 points.
Sullinger led the Celtics with 15 points in the first period but his teammates were 12-for-34 shooting for 26 points. Avery Bradley and Crawford were a combined 4 for 15 from the field, a byproduct of strong Milwaukee defense.
The Celtics played the first quarter as if their goal was to knock out a struggling team early. They shot 59.1 percent in the first 12 minutes, leading by as many as 11 as they pounded the paint against the hobbling Bucks.
Sullinger tallied 9 points on 4-for-6 shooting and Vitor Faverani scored 6 consecutive points for a 27-16 lead before picking up his second foul. Faverani completed his run with a left-handed dunk on Zaza Pachulia.
Green added 6 points and two assists in the first period. Milwaukee looked confused, especially at the start. Coach Larry Drew inserted Antetokounmpo late and his athleticism made a difference, sparking a second-quarter Bucks’ run that changed the game.