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Christopher L. Gasper

Don’t worry too much about that Game 3 loss. The Celtics showed they can take this series.

Grant Williams scored nine points in Game 3.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

There is always eternal sunshine of the Celtics mind when it comes to discussing and assessing the team, more so than any other local sports outfit. I’m here to tell you this time it’s warranted.

The Celtics’ 103-101 road loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals represents a Rorschach test. What do you see? A team that went down 2-1 in a series it has never led after laying an egg at Fiserv Forum and let Giannis Antetokounmpo get loose for 42 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 assists? Or do you see that a team that literally lost by a fingertip and a fraction of a second on a night its best player belonged on the side of a milk carton and it registered its worst quarter of the playoffs?


Look to the latter and a truth about this series revealed as clearly as the fact that Al Horford’s game-tying tip was stuck to his hand when the horn sounded. There is only one team that can win this series. It’s Boston. Milwaukee can’t win it. The Celtics can only lose it.

The Green control their destiny. If they play to their capability they’re going to eliminate Khris Middleton-less Milwaukee. The Celtics’ talent level and margin for error are simply greater than that of the Bucks, who are a two-man team with Giannis and Jrue Holiday. If the Celtics don’t beat themselves with a lack of execution and a lack of composure, they are seizing this series.

Nearly everything went the Bucks’ way, and they still couldn’t put away the Celtics, who rallied from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit to take a late lead.

Let us count the ways this contest tipped in Milwaukee’s favor:

• Antetokounmpo shot 53 percent (16 of 30) after missing 15-plus shots in back-to-back games for the first two games and the first time in his career.


Giannis Antetokounmpo drives to the basket for two first-quarter points in Saturday's Game 3.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

• Milwaukee generated its best offensive quarter of the playoffs, scoring 34 in the third quarter.

• The Celtics delivered their worst, scoring just 17 points while committing seven of their 12 turnovers.

• Jayson Tatum left his shot back in Boston, hitting 4 of 19, the second-worst playoff performance of his career, including 0-6 from 3-point range.

• The Celtics came into the game shooting 40.9 percent from 3-point range, and they hit just 9 of 33 threes (27.3 percent) with Tatum and Game 2 hero Grant Williams combining to go 1 for 12.

Despite all of that, the Celtics snatched the lead with 1:49 to go and nearly sent it to overtime at the end after Marcus Smart’s intentionally-missed second free-throw was batted around.

That doesn’t provide the Celtics with solace heading into Game 4 on Monday, but it should provide them with confidence.

“Yeah, tremendous amount,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “That’s what I said to the group.

“We weren’t as sharp as we need to be offensively, but after a poor third quarter on both ends that we could rally back, the message there is guard the way we have, other than that third quarter, and get our offense clicking a little bit more.”

Normally, the playoffs aren’t the time for superimposing silver linings or bear-hugging moral victories. However, the Celtics took Milwaukee’s best shot, and it’s fair to ask, “Is that all they’ve got?”


Despite being down 2-1 in the series, Ime Udoka and his team feel good about their chances.Morry Gash/Associated Press

This series will turn on the Celtics’ ability to execute and comport themselves under pressure. Get down on your knees on the parquet and pray for the strength for them to do the latter.

The most damning negative from Sunday’s game wasn’t how poorly the Celtics shot or that they provided too much runway for Antetokounmpo to take off to the rim. Nope. It was that they lapsed back into old bad habits when the proceedings weren’t going their way.

In-game and post-game, the Celtic sommeliers served up a vintage whine.

You like that the hyper-competitive Celtics don’t accept losing. You don’t like that they’re incapable of accepting responsibility for losing, always looking to pin the blame on somewhere else — the officials, injuries, bad luck, etc.

Victimhood, thy name is Boston basketball. The Green lapse into excuse-making after tough losses.

The Celtics were particularly peeved about the foul on Holiday that sent Smart to the line with 4.6 seconds left for two shots instead of the three the Celtics desired after he attempted to draw a shooting foul while raising up from approximately Waukesha, Wis.

Udoka called it a “poor non-call” and a “bad missed call.”

It was a shrewd play by the ever-wily Smart, but if the NBA is going to give that call to a shaky-shooting role player just shut down the league.

Smart’s action was exactly the type of abject foul hunting on far-away shots that the NBA has targeted for removal this year. Just ask James Harden, the master of such moves.


“We’re down three, looking to get one up. I thought it was pretty obvious,” said Jaylen Brown, joining the chorus of Celtics complaints. “All year they’ve been calling that on the floor, which we understand, but time and score, I think they missed one.”

It’s unbecoming for Boston to be begging for and bemoaning calls. They didn’t lose because of the officials. They lost because they didn’t play well enough for long enough.

Jayson Tatum wasn't happy with referee Scott Foster after a non-call in Game 1.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Worse, Udoka pointed out the Celtics surrendered baskets while arguing with the referees.

“You have to play through that, have our composure,” Udoka said. “If they’re going to call it that way consistently on both ends, you got to play through that, not bitch about calls . . . It was a little bit too much.”

Coach Mike Budenholzer and Milwaukee would like to have a word about the fact that the Celtics shot 17 more free throws than the home team, including the Bucks taking zero in the fourth.

The Celtics are the better, deeper, more balanced team with a Google Maps array of routes to victory. That should be the takeaway, not the feeling that the Celtics had a game taken away from them by the officials.

A wise philosopher, William Stephen Belichick, says, “Control what you can control.”

The Celtics can – and should – control this series.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.