MILWAUKEE — On Saturday night at Bradley Center, the Celtics learned a difficult lesson about how to win close games.
They played stellar defense in the final quarter to give themselves a chance, but when they needed a high-percentage shot, a strong layup at the rim, they became infatuated with the 3-pointer. The Celtics sometimes have difficulty knowing their strengths.
When they trailed the Bucks by 14 in the third quarter, they abandoned their long-range offense and pounded in the paint, going to Jae Crowder and Tyler Zeller for layups. That revived their offense. After stopping the Bucks’ penetrating offense, they cut the deficit to 92-91 with 3:03 remaining in the fourth quarter.
But that 1 point couldn’t be overcome. The Celtics wasted a couple of chances to go ahead and lost, 96-93, after Brandon Knight drained a stepback jumper despite admirable defense from Brandon Bass off a defensive switch.
Knight’s jumper wasn’t the problem; it was a brilliant counter to strong defense. The issue was that the Celtics were 5 for 11 on 2-point shots in the final period but 1 for 7 on 3-pointers. Because of personnel and the lack of a rim-protecting center who can score in the paint, the Celtics have implemented a stretch-the-court, 3-point heavy offense that is successful when those shots are falling.
But when they’re not?
That’s when the Celtics become predictable. With the Celtics trailing, 92-91, Avery Bradley missed a go-ahead 3-pointer with 2:34 left.
With the Celtics trailing, 94-91, with 1:43 left, Bradley missed another 3. And finally, with the Celtics trailing by the same 3-point margin, Jared Sullinger’s 3-point attempt hit nothing but the backboard with 1:08 left. Boston returned to its 3-point chucking ways when it wasn’t necessary and missed an opportunity for a strong road win against a playoff-contending team.
The Celtics were 7 for 29 from 3-point land and 29 for 57 on 2-point shots. They didn’t take enough 2-point shots.
“I thought the one time we got a great look and it was an extra pass to Avery in the corner and it was a great look,” Stevens said of Bradley’s first 3-point miss in the sequence. “The other time it was OK. Hey, both teams were really tuned in at that point, defensively. Their length and athleticism gave us problems. We tried to post [Sullinger] and we tried to get him down there as much as possible and Giannis [Antetokounmpo] did a good job guarding the actions to get him there.
“They could turn it up a notch with their length and athleticism at the end. They did a good job.”
What is distressing about this defeat is that Milwaukee committed four team fouls in the first 3:49 of the fourth quarter, meaning the Celtics were in the bonus for the final 8:11. They managed four free throws in that span, and none were created by throwing the ball in the paint.
“We’re not really known as a physical team who takes it to the paint,” Celtics swingman Evan Turner said. “We’re know as a jump-shot team, so they [the Bucks] are going to play how they play and I think Milwaukee does a great job setting a tone to a certain extent of showing how they’re going to play. You know? They start the game and might get one chucking foul.”
Said Bradley: “We lost by 3 points and played bad. That’s it. It shows we had a chance to win the game and we played bad.”
The Celtics have to gain more of a physical personality. They need to be tougher. They need to shoot more free throws. They need to challenge teams in the paint.
“I think it’s the plays we call, it’s the shots we get off ball movement,” Turner said. “Lately we’ve been doing great ball movement and a wide-open shot is a 3. We’ve been getting people on the post, but I think obviously we have to do a better job touching the paint more. It wouldn’t be tough at all [to do that]. We missed a couple of good shots. It’s tough to go out that way, but we’ll bounce back.
“It was a big win on the road we could have got and that’s the biggest thing I’m going to focus on is a big opportunity on the road.”
The Celtics have 32 games left and are two games behind Miami for the final playoff spot. Saturday’s game proved they could play a difficult team and give themselves a chance to win, even when playing their fourth game in five nights. Under adverse circumstances, they showed maximum effort.
“They keep playing,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. “They grind. Coach Stevens does a great job with those guys. We knew it was going to be 48 minutes of a complete ballgame and we found a way to get a stop at the end.”
The compliments are admirable. The Celtics do play hard for Stevens. But now it’s time for this team to take the next step in its development and become more versatile and less predictable. They need to challenge opposing defenses, fall out of love with the 3-pointer, and capitalize on their post-centric players.
They learned a bitter lesson Saturday about breaking out of their comfort zone. They couldn’t, and they paid for it.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.