MILWAUKEE — When Marcus Morris released the ball for the 3-point attempt, the rest of his teammates watched, anticipating another Morris clutch shot.
Except on this night that Morris 3-pointer, as with just about everything else the Celtics tried, missed. And when Khris Middleton leaked out for an uncontested dunk, suddenly the Celtics’ deficit was 6.
With Morris and Jayson Tatum clanging shot after shot — together they were 9 for 29 from the field — the Celtics lost a tough 106-102 decision to the Milwaukee Bucks at BMO Harris Bradley Center on Tuesday night.
The Celtics blew their chance to draw to within one game of first-place Toronto in the Eastern Conference. While the Celtics were scraping down the stretch, the Raptors were losing in Cleveland.
The game might have been a playoff preview, because with one week left in the season, the Bucks are tied with the Heat and Wizards for the sixth seed and the Celtics are in second place, two games back of Toronto for the top seed.
Despite playing with a shell of their Opening Night roster and against a team desperate to atone for a difficult loss Sunday, the Celtics were hardly happy with the loss.
“We had every opportunity to win that game and I don’t think we played very well,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “We gave up a lot of opportunities to them, some of the stuff we said we were going to take away, we didn’t. We missed a lot of shots. I know the offense was a little misconfigured trying to figure things out, but we had every opportunity to win this game. And we should have won.”
The Celtics worked feverishly to stay close in the second half, but they had no answer for MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo, especially in the second half. The Celtics wanted him to shoot from the perimeter, but he opted to take Al Horford or any other defender off the dribble.
The result was a bunch of easy layups. He used his athleticism to soar to the rim for an easy score for a 96-90 lead with 4:07 left. After a Brown jumper, Eric Bledsoe countered with a 3-pointer and the Celtics were in trouble.
Horford countered with a 3-pointer and the Celtics got a stop before Morris (4-for-16 shooting) missed that pivotal shot.
Morris and Tatum missed key free throws in the waning minutes and Bledsoe polished off the Celtics with a crafty layup and Antetokounmpo sank two free throws for a 105-100 lead with 13.6 seconds left.
With Terry Rozier sitting out with a sprained left ankle and rookie Kadeem Allen getting his first NBA start after 39 previous NBA minutes, Celtics coach Brad Stevens wasn’t too broken up about the loss, especially with the team making the decision to sit Rozier despite his feeling “85 percent.”
“Well, they got a lot of talent out on the floor, they’re really good,” Stevens said of the Bucks. “Our margin was smaller, so we’ve got to do a better job of managing that with some of the backscreen lobs [t0 the basket] they got. You can’t let people behind you in transition, those are killers.”
The Celtics were just a step slow defensively, had trouble gathering rebounds that led to second-chance Bucks points, and then Antetokounmpo made a sparkling chase-down block of a Brown layup that would have cut the deficit to 3 with 53.4 seconds left.
Morris, who had hit his share of big shots over the past few weeks, couldn’t sink the open ones Tuesday. He missed 5 of 6 3-point attempts, committed five turnovers, and had trouble finishing at the rim.
The Celtics committed 17 turnovers and missed 16 of 23 3-point attempts. Allen finished with 2 points and 2 assists, all in the first quarter.
Greg Monroe missed five of his nine shots, all of those were layups.
“It stinks that you’ve got to limit your menu probably when you’re not playing with anyone besides Kadeem [at the point],” Stevens said. “Ultimately, I thought our guys did a pretty good job of hanging around from an offensive perspective. . . . We missed some shots around the rim in [the Bucks’] run. You can’t miss those in that environment tonight.”
The one player the Celtics hadn’t faced before was former second overall pick Jabari Parker, who returned a month ago from recovering from a second ACL tear. Parker, who has been a spark off the bench, spurred a 14-2 Milwaukee run in the second period with a 3-pointer and a midrange jumper. He finished with 12 points in 30 minutes.
The Bucks have a chance to nab the sixth seed with their next three games against the Nets, Knicks, and Magic. But they are definitely eyeing the Celtics as a potential first-round opponent.
The teams split the season series.
The Celtics would likely be the second seed if they lose Wednesday in Toronto. It is uncertain if Rozier will return for that game.
“I think we match up well,” Bucks center John Henson said. “They’re a tough team that has some bodies out, but I don’t think Coach Stevens brought out all of his stuff for us, knowing that we’re probably going to see a playoff matchup. So it’s going to be fun.”