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Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown must rise to semifinals occasion if Celtics have any hopes of turning series around

Jayson Tatum and the Celtics must pick themselves up and match the intensity of defending NBA champion Milwaukee if they have any chance of rebounding from a disappointing performance in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinals matchup.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

If the Celtics are to overcome the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks in this series, then they need their two best players to assert themselves, realize their level of play that was good enough against the overmatched Brooklyn Nets won’t get a passing grade here, and embrace the magnitude of these moments.

This is the Eastern Conference semifinals, and the Celtics have an opportunity for greatness, a chance to reach the NBA Finals if they can match or exceed the execution of the veteran Bucks.

Yet, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum shrunk under the pressure of Game 1 on Sunday at TD Garden. Brown was careless with the ball, chucked threes when his shot was off, and then tried forcing drives against multiple defenders. Tatum was slightly better, but he missed 12 of his 18 shots and then appeared more interested in snapping at officials than getting back on defense.

The Bucks brought a physicality in their 101-89 win the Celtics haven’t seen in weeks. They protected the paint with a fierceness, considering any Boston dribble penetration a sign of disrespect that needed to be quickly addressed with a blocked shot or a passionate contest. They wanted to stop the Celtics more than the Celtics wanted to score and it was apparent after about 20 minutes.


Tatum and Brown were a combined 10-for-31 shooting and 3 of 13 from 2-pointers, meaning they were either challenged at the rim or just missed chip-shot layups. Tatum thrived in the Brooklyn series by splitting the defense with his dribble and then challenging the opposing big man for a layup.

On Sunday, Tatum tried dribbling but then saw behemoths Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo and thought differently. The result was a missed layup against multiple defenders or a pass out. The Bucks were not going to let the Celtics win the paint, and they controlled the game by limiting makeable shots.


Jayson Tatum looks for a call from referee Scott Foster on Sunday, but to no avail.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Celtics then reverted to their December selves and countered by launching threes. Tatum and Brown attempted 18 threes, making seven. But few were really impactful. The Bucks had control by the time each started to get untracked.

And while coach Ime Udoka could point to a solid defensive effort – holding Antetokounmpo to 9-for-25 shooting and the Bucks to 41 percent overall – the fact is Boston’s stars didn’t show up to the party in the most critical game of the season.

“Jayson and Jaylen didn’t have the best night offensively,” Udoka said. “We missed some easy ones that we’re normally going to make so that combined leads to those numbers. To have 89 points and lack of penetration and paint points is obviously alarming and we’ve got to figure that out.”

The Bucks began the day by applying full-court pressure during possessions to speed the Celtics up and hinder their offensive rhythm. Brown tried burning the defense by making open 3-pointers but missed five of his six attempts in the first half and committed four turnovers.

Ball-handling in traffic has been Brown’s primary weakness and he again struggled against the aggressive Bucks, who were reaching each time he attacked the basket. His seven turnovers tied a season high and in one third-quarter possession, he simply airballed a short hook shot, missing by 2 feet.

“We gotta be the smarter team,” Brown said. “Tonight we weren’t. We shot a lot of threes and we have a lot of good looks, but we have to understand that’s what they want us to do. They hit us in the mouth early and set the tone. We have to find ways to impact the game, regardless. No excuses, we have to be better.”


Jaylen Brown tries to drive past Milwaukee's Jevon Carter in the second half of Sunday's loss.Steven Senne/Associated Press

The loss was similar to those against the Miami Heat nearly two years ago in the NBA Bubble. The Heat were the tougher and scrappier and wanted the games more. The Celtics had their pride challenged during that series and folded. They didn’t necessarily fold in Game 1 but they were definitely staggered, seemingly shocked by Milwaukee’s intensity and precision, resorting to hero ball or making the near-possible pass that resulted in one of Boston’s 18 turnovers.

The Bucks want anyone besides Tatum and Brown to beat them. And players like Grant Williams, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, and Payton Pritchard have to hit open shots. But the key to the Celtics prevailing in this series is Tatum and Brown being top 10 players.

Neither was close to that level Sunday.

“There’s a lot of things to take away from this,” Tatum said. “The series is not won or lost off one game, especially not Game 1. Give them credit, they were the better team today. They played better than we did and they deserved to win. We have to play with more poise. We had a lot of turnovers. Being too careless. They’re a really good team, so it’s not going to be easy. We can’t just let them speed us up like that.”


After the Nets provided little else besides two elite scorers and zero defensive resistance, the Celtics got a real taste of what playoff intensity is and what will be required to compete with a champion. If Tatum and Brown are as good as they have been advertised and proven, then they have to become the catalysts for this series, despite Milwaukee doing everything it can to stifle them.

It’s the ultimate challenge, and it will require adjustments from Udoka and more consistency and composure from Tatum and Brown.

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.