MILWAUKEE — There is a reason why Doc Rivers chided his team for its inconsistency. After scoring the game’s first 17 points and looking flawless in the process, the Celtics found themselves scraping for a made shot down the stretch.
And they came up empty.
The Celtics watched a 3-point lead with 1:44 left disappear against the Bucks on Saturday and then had two open chances at a tying 3-pointer in the final 11 seconds. Paul Pierce missed the first and after a Courtney Lee rebound, Jason Terry missed a 28-footer at the buzzer, leaving them with a bitter 91-88 defeat in Milwaukee.
The Celtics were so dominant early, but were a victim of countless missed shots in the final two quarters. The combination of Pierce and Terry went 11 for 33 shooting while Kevin Garnett missed four of six shots in the final quarter.
In the final game without Rajon Rondo, who served the second of his two-game suspension, the Celtics missed 14 of 20 fourth-quarter shots, including all three by Terry.
Brandon Jennings gave the Bucks the lead for good with 24 seconds left, after Terry was late on a defensive switch, for a 90-88 lead. Terry missed a 3-pointer and after Larry Sanders missed the second of two free throws, the Celtics had one final chance to tie.
“Being that 14-year veteran, I can’t make that crucial mistake of leaving Brandon Jennings at the end,” Terry said. “So I told everybody I take this one on my shoulders, but this team is getting better and you can see it. You can see our focus. You can see our effort at both ends of the floor. Just a disappointing loss tonight.”
Their inability to score capped a frustrating offensive night where they were 23 of 60 in the final quarters and watched a 17-point lead disappear. Pierce led the Celtics with 19 points, but he missed 10 of 16 shots while Garnett added 17, but didn’t score in the final 6:32.
“We just didn’t keep the momentum going,” Garnett said. “Some of their veterans came in and got them back in the game. We give up 36 points [in the second quarter], that’s a lot of points for any team and we were in a dogfight from there on.”
And as usual, the Celtics were burned by a rebounding menace who changed the game. Sanders finished with 18 points and 16 rebounds off the bench. He made all four of his shots in the fourth quarter.
Rivers discussed the activity of Sanders, who blocked 10 shots in Friday’s loss at Minnesota, as a potential issue and he was correct. The lanky, athletic forward gave the Celtics fits in the paint, but Boston actually won the rebounding battle, 43-42, and Rivers couldn’t be too critical at his team’s execution.
Emotional about the death of close friend Rick Majerus, Rivers was brief in his postgame comments.
“Overall, I thought our guys really played hard; we did everything we could do,” he said. “We missed a lot of good shots down the stretch. It was a tough loss. I’m not mad at all. We had a bad rotation leaving Jennings but that was effort again. They made some shots and we missed some.”
The Celtics stormed back in the final three minutes, using a quick 3-pointer from Jeff Green, who had just entered the game a moment earlier to even the score at 85. Two possessions later, Pierce drained a 26-footer early in the shot clock to stun the Bucks at the 1:44 mark.
But those would be their final points. Sanders slammed home a pass from Monta Ellis to slice the deficit to 1 and Jennings then cinched the game with his 3-pointer.
What’s maddening to Rivers about his Celtics is their inconsistency can occur at any moment. The Bucks managed just 11 points in the first period on 5-for-19 shooting, unable to run offensive players and forced to freelance because of stifling Boston defense.
In the second quarter, Milwaukee repeatedly ran the same pick-and-roll play with Sanders or smooth outside shooter Ersan Ilyasova and the Celtics couldn’t do little to stop it. After trailing 27-11 in the first period, the Bucks responded with 36 second-quarter points on 14-for-22 shooting.
And the Celtics lead was chopped down methodically until Luc Mbah a Moute cut the margin to 48-47 on a putback at the 39.9 mark. It was such a disappointing outcome considering the Celtics were so dominant in the early going. The sparse crowd at Bradley Center, who made one of their loudest cheers when the Nebraska-Wisconsin partial score was announced, was silent for most of the first 12 minutes.
They reacted with a sarcastic round of applause when Ilyasova’s converted Milwaukee’s first basket the 6:29 mark of the first quarter. By then it was 17-2 and the Celtics looked flawless.
Lee exceeded his season point average in the first period.
His 9 points paced the Celtics, who shot 50 percent in the period and committed just two turnovers, despite the absence of Rondo.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.