The NBA trade deadline will arrive at 3 p.m. on Thursday, and for much of the Celtics’ game against the Bucks on Wednesday night, their needs for reinforcements, or even just a general shakeup, appeared glaring.
Then they provided some evidence that perhaps this core group that has been ravaged by injuries and illnesses just needs some more time together, as they charged back from a 25-point, third-quarter deficit and came within inches of completing a massive comeback.
In the end, though, Daniel Theis’s potential winning 3-pointer at the buzzer was off, and the Bucks held on for a 121-119 win, leaving the Celtics to focus on another moral victory without an actual one. And the standings don’t care about rallies that fell just short, so the Celtics have fallen to 21-23, just a half-game ahead of the ninth-place Pacers with 28 games remaining.
Kemba Walker’s 14-point third quarter kept Boston within striking distance, and the run carried into the fourth. The Celtics trailed, 119-110, with 2:30 left before Jayson Tatum converted a 3-point play and Walker and Jaylen Brown drilled 3-pointers, pulling the Celtics within 121-119 with 1:32 left.
After an offensive foul by Giannis Antetokounmpo, Marcus Smart missed an open 3-pointer that would have given the Celtics the lead. The Celtics had two more chances to tie, but Walker and Smart had shots blocked. Smart’s attempt was swatted out of bounds with two seconds left. After the initial inbounds was knocked out with one second remaining, Smart found Theis wide open in the right corner, in front of Boston’s bench.
The players there rose from their seats and were prepared for the kind of celebration that has been so rare during this uneven year. Instead, they put their hands on their heads in disbelief before patting Theis on the back.
“We wanted that to happen, for sure,” Walker said. “But it was a great look. He took a great shot.”
Brown had 24 points and Walker added 23 for the Celtics. It was Milwaukee’s 13th win in its last 14 games. These teams will meet again on Friday night.
Observations from the game:
▪ On the final play, Bucks center Brook Lopez, who is a good rim protector but certainly not mobile, was focused on protecting the paint in case one of the Celtics sliced to the rim for the baseline inbounds. Theis could see what was transpiring and even pointed toward the corner to let Smart know he was heading there. The pass was on the mark, and Theis’s look was clean. The shot was just a bit long. As the pass went to Theis, Lopez lumbered toward him and may have run right into him if Theis had sold the contact, but he slid out of the way before that could happen.
“Theis was the best option there and got a great look,” coach Brad Stevens said. “He stepped in and shot it with authority, back-rimmed it, it looked good. So I think if we would have played better earlier maybe we’d be in better position, but guys hung together and competed.”
▪ The Celtics trailed by 9 points with a little more than five minutes left before charging back and forcing overtime on Monday against the Grizzlies. They trailed by 18 points in the third quarter before pulling within 3 against the Cavaliers last Wednesday. And they trailed by 25 midway through the third quarter Wednesday before getting a potential winning 3-point attempt. But all three game ended as losses. All three comebacks provided reason for optimism, but the sour moments that preceded them cannot be forgotten.
“I thought [the Bucks] just hit us in the mouth and kept punching and we were lucky to be within what we were even at halftime giving up 70 points,” Stevens said. “It didn’t look good there at the start of the half, but then guys went to it, you know, really played well, possession to possession, and gave us a chance to win.”
▪ Walker had a quiet start and his frustration level was as visible as it has been all season. He appeared on the verge of getting whistled for a technical foul several times when he voiced his displeasure with the officiating. Then early in the third quarter he stepped on the sideline and slammed the ball into the floor in frustration. But he got into a groove and sparked Boston’s third-quarter comeback, scoring 14 points over the final nine minutes. He seemed invigorated during that stretch, and the Celtics surely hope it’s something to build on.
“I was pretty frustrated early, and as one of the leaders, I just can’t show it on my face like that,” Walker said. “I can’t show the frustration as much as I did earlier in the game. I thought it carried over to my teammates.”
▪ Smart’s minutes restriction has been lifted and he was the only Celtic to play the entire fourth quarter. His defensive effort and playmaking help keep Boston centered, so it’s no wonder that Stevens wants him on the floor at critical moments. But he has hurt the Celtics with his late-game offense recently, including the missed 3-pointer and the blocked layup in the final minute in this game. This season Smart is shooting just 28.3 percent overall and 8 percent from the 3-point line in fourth quarters.
▪ The Celtics’ defensive effort was lacking for much of the game, but Milwaukee’s might have been just as bad down the stretch, a puzzling response from a team that has played so well recently. On Walker’s 3-pointer that pulled Boston within 3 points with two minutes left, no Bucks defender even feigned trying to make the shot difficult for him. They treated him like he was no threat. It’s fairly common for big leads to vanish quickly in the NBA, but the team that gave up the big lead usually turns up its defensive intensity when needed.
▪ Semi Ojeleye suffered a hip contusion when he collided with Bucks guard Jrue Holiday on a screen with 9:31 left in the second quarter. He slumped to the ground and Stevens had to call a timeout before Ojeleye was helped to the locker room. He was ruled out soon after. Ojeleye has been a reliable bench piece this season. He entered the night shooting 38.7 percent from the 3-point line and has played his usual sturdy defense. If he’s expected to be out for a significant amount of time, it could affect Boston’s approach to Thursday’s trade deadline.