MILWAUKEE — Blake Griffin uttered the word just once to make his point. But it was important to emphasize that the Celtics do monitor how much effort and fortitude they give each night, even though it has remained a season-long issue.
The Celtics’ “Give a [expletive]” meter has been wavering the past few weeks. They have played well when they wanted to. They have played poorly when the opponent doesn’t appear imposing and that apathy has likely cost them the No. 1 seed.
Thursday’s clash with the NBA-best Bucks was the most important game of the season, not only because it was the final matchup of the season against a rival but because the Celtics were coming off one of their worst performances of the season, Tuesday in Washington.
That blowout loss may have cost them a legitimate shot at the top seed in the Eastern Conference but psychologically, the Celtics needed to show the Bucks they’ll be waiting later on regardless if Game 1 is at the Garden or Fiserv Forum.
The “Give a [expletive]” meter soared beyond the maximum limit this time, with the Celtics clobbering the tired and frustrated Bucks, 140-99, heading back to Boston with their chests out because they displayed to a national television audience their prowess when they are engaged.
The Celtics have taken lighter opponents lightly but always are prepared against the big boys. They are 5-1 against the Bucks and 76ers this season. They are practically unbeatable when Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are knocking down shots.
Yet, they realize they have to maintain focus, even on nights such as Friday, when the Jazz come to the Garden with a dimming shot at the play-in tournament in the West.
“We talked about it a lot, every team I’ve ever been on, they talk about a sense of urgency but really it’s like, do you give a bleep,” Griffin said. “Do you care enough to play this hard every night? Pay this much attention to detail? The team that usually does that the most throughout the playoffs wins. It’s about pride for us and that will be our challenge these next five games and the playoffs.
“It’s on us. No discredit to anybody else. Washington played well but if we don’t come out right, then we don’t have a chance.”
The players, including Tatum and Brown, and coach Joe Mazzulla said the true character of this team will be judged with how they come out against the Jazz. Focus can be difficult in the NBA, especially when fatigue is involved. Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer prepared for this showdown by playing All-Stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday 32 minutes each in their Wednesday win over the Pacers.
It was Milwaukee’s first home game after a four-game road trip. The Celtics still had to execute, play strong defense against Antetokounmpo and hit open shots. They had to capitalize on Milwaukee’s lethargy and avoid playing to that level.
“Everybody in the room has to care enough, I call it the ‘Give a [expletive]’ meter,” he said. “It’s got to be high or bad things can happen.”
At this point, bad things are playoff losses because of that lack of focus. The Celtics are preparing themselves to not only maintain but increase their concentration levels at this crucial time. No more letdowns. No more allowing inferior teams to somehow play season-best games.
The Celtics won’t play this flawlessly every night but they should be able to play this hard.
“I trust our team’s maturity and character to where we’ll compete at a high level [Friday],” Mazzulla said. “There’s no guarantees. I want them to understand why they won. I want them to feel that. At the same time, regardless of [the win], we have to play tomorrow.
“[Bouncing back] is something we’ve done throughout the year. We’ve played really, really good basketball for long stretches. We’ve had some slip-ups but we’ve always responded well.”
The “Give a [expletive]” meter can no longer plunge down to the level it was Tuesday against Washington. The Celtics showed Thursday they are capable of pummeling even the most talented teams, especially when Tatum and Brown combine for 70 points and the team hits 22 3-pointers.
But they have to bring this desire when they struggle from the field or are fatigued or in some cases just don’t feel like showing up to work, similar to the rest of us on occasion.
The Celtics made a resounding statement with their 41-point win. They regained their swagger and pride after Tuesday’s debacle. Now the goal is to keep it moving, transform into that juggernaut more consistently and “Give a [expletive]” every night, regardless of the opponent or situation. That’s the sign of maturity. “The game honors when you play it the right way, approach it the right way,” Tatum said. “Forgetting about [Thursday]. The game is over. It happened. We have a game [Friday]. We talked about it in the locker room. They all count as one. We’re going to show how good of a team we are by the way we respond. That’s all that matters at this point.”