Fans who had so recently been roaring and smiling and dancing in the TD Garden aisles walked slowly up the stairs in silence. Others just stood at their seats, hands on their waists or heads, and looked up at the scoreboard, almost to check for proof that what they had just witnessed was real.
But the numbers glowing high above the court after Game 5 of this conference semifinal told the truth: Bucks 110, Celtics 107.
The Celtics coughed up a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and crumbled in the final two minutes, the final hit coming when Jrue Holiday swiped the ball away from Marcus Smart before the Celtics could even attempt a potential game-tying 3-pointer.
Now, the Celtics will return to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Friday facing a 3-2 deficit, their season on the line.
“It hurts,” Smart said. “It definitely hurts, but we don’t have time to feel it. Pretty simple. If you’re not ready for the next game then don’t step on the court. That’s how you get ready and move on.”
The Celtics returned home for this game brimming with confidence after a rousing Game 4 win in Milwaukee. It looked as if Giannis Antetokounmpo, as mighty and powerful as he is, simply did not have enough to overcome this deep Boston team that emerged as a popular pick to win the NBA title.
And for nearly 40 minutes Wednesday, Milwaukee did little to push back against that narrative. Antetokounmpo was dominant, but his team was not.
These Bucks are familiar with what it takes, however, even in dire moments. So there they were, soaring in and gobbling up their own missed shots for second chances. There they were, after spending the better part of five games throwing up bricks from long range, drilling six 3-pointers in a row. They needed all of them.
“They were defending champs, made some championship plays,” Smart said, “and now we have to respond.”
Although this felt sort of like the end to this Celtics season, it was not. This team made believers out of skeptics as it marched toward the top of the Eastern Conference after once being in danger of missing the playoffs, and now it will have to do it again.
They spoke with confidence afterward. Jayson Tatum quipped that if they did not, the narrative would emerge that they were shaken. He insisted they are not.
“There’s no sense in being sad or putting your head down,” Tatum said, “because that’s not going to do anything for next game.”
Coach Ime Udoka was even more direct, planting an early seed of optimism.
“It’ll make it sweeter when we bounce back,” he said.
Boston will take some solace in the fact that road teams have won three of five games in this series, and it was a whisker away from making that four in the Game 3 near-miss. Also, this team has done a remarkable job of ensuring that low points do not linger. Still, it will not be easy, and Wednesday provided further evidence.
The Celtics took a 93-79 lead on a Payton Pritchard fadeaway in the lane with 10:16 left. The Garden was rumbling.
But the Bucks answered with a 20-8 burst that was capped by a Holiday 19-footer with 4:09 left that pulled them within 101-99. The Celtics steadied themselves and stretched their lead back to 105-99 on a monstrous putback slam by Al Horford, the Game 4 hero.
And when Bobby Portis missed a 20-footer with 1:45 left, the Celtics were in a great spot.
But the Bucks were a menace on the offensive glass, and here, Wes Matthews cuffed the carom and fed Antetokounmpo, who was 3 for 20 from 3-point range in the series before calmly draining this one.
The Celtics had possession and a 3-point lead with under a minute left when Smart coughed up the ball and the Bucks raced upcourt and got a 3-pointer from Holiday that tied the score at 105 at the 43-second mark.
The Celtics called a timeout to set up a two-for-one chance, and the plan worked. Tatum drew a foul with 31.1 seconds left and hit both free throws. But the loss of that timeout became costly.
Antetokounpo was fouled on the other end and he hit the first free throw but missed the second. Brown and Smart both had a clear shot at the rebound before they collided in midair, sending the ball gently into the hands of Portis, whose putback gave the Bucks a 108-107 lead with 11.4 seconds left.
“That’s a tough one to swallow, especially knowing they have a poor free-throw shooter up there,” Udoka said. “You just have to find bodies and come up with that one.”
The Celtics used their final timeout to draw up a play for Tatum, but it never materialized. Smart got a step on Pat Connaughton and drove the right baseline before Holiday slid over, gobbled up the chance, and threw the ball off of Smart and out of bounds.
Connaughton was fouled with 5.9 seconds left and calmly hit both free throws. With no timeouts, Smart inbounded the ball to Horford and immediately got it back, but his second dribble was not clean. Holiday sensed that Smart was off-balance, and he slid in and swiped the ball as time expired.
Antetokounmpo finished with 40 points and 11 rebounds for Milwaukee, which grabbed 17 offensive rebounds as a team. Tatum led Boston with 34 points and Brown added 26, including 16 during a dominant third quarter in which the Celtics stretched their lead.
Brown sat for the first 4:26 of the fourth, and even though the Celtics essentially maintained their lead without him, he wished he had returned earlier to help put the game away.