MILWAUKEE — Going back to Boston having lost the past two games, the Celtics can at least be encouraged by a dominant final 18 minutes of Game 4.
They trailed by 20 with 7:37 left in the third quarter Sunday, and only the heroics of perhaps the most unique player the NBA has ever seen prevented a gritty Celtic win. Giannis Antetokounmpo used his Plastic Man arms to reach a Malcolm Brogdon miss and his soft hands to cradle the ball for a tip-in for the winning bucket with 5.1 seconds left in a 104-102 Bucks victory.
The best-of-seven series is now even at two, with Game 5 Tuesday night at TD Garden.
The Celtics were at their best in the final 18 minutes, finally figuring out Milwaukee defensively, hitting some 3-pointers, and attacking the basket for layups. It was the team that had soundly beaten the Bucks in the first two games, a group that played together, trusted each other, and played with confidence.
Only Antetokounmpo saved Milwaukee, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Countless times Sunday, he bailed the Bucks out of bad possessions with his hustle and relentlessness. The Bucks were scrambling on their final possession when Brogdon had no choice but to try an off-balance layup. Antetokounmpo used his physical prowess to beat the Celtics.
It’s a painful loss for the Celtics because they looked to be the better team in the second half. They were tentative and timid through the first six quarters here at the Bradley Center. They had no answers for the Bucks’ crisp passing and clutch shooting. They completely looked defeated until they started to string together baskets in the second half.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 37 points on 14-of-22 shooting in that second-half resurgence. And that should be something to build on for Game 5, because the Celtics will need to be at their best to retake the series advantage.
“We played great in the second half,” coach Brad Stevens said. “We were so much better after the break, even when they made those first few shots. I thought we were doing what we set out to do. We were better on [Khris] Middleton. I thought we did a decent job on Giannis and we played the way we want to play in the second half.”
The problem is the Celtics have gotten off to putrid starts in the past two games, shooting 30.4 percent from the field and 23.8 percent from the 3-point line in the first halves. They spotted the Bucks 20-point leads in both games.
The reason the Celtics lost Game 4 was their lousy first half, not Antetokounmpo’s tip-in or Brown being stripped as he attempted to attack the basket with 40 seconds left. They lost because they didn’t play their game until it was too late.
That horrible roll pass by Marcus Morris that was intercepted by Matthew Dellavedova and converted into a layup at the first-quarter buzzer is why they lost. And Terry Rozier’s tentativeness in the first half is why they lost. And the bench’s ineptitude in the first half is why they lost.
The game took a dramatic turn in the second half, however, because the Celtics got rid of the yips and decided to impose their will.
“This was another learning experience for our group,” center Al Horford said. “I felt like in the second half we were much better, more engaged in the things we needed to do. I feel good going back home for Game 5. Our group is a group that showed a lot of grit in the second half and I was very encouraged by that.”
The Celtics can’t just rely on going home because Milwaukee has devised a recipe for beating Boston and will certainly use those same principles in Game 5 and hope Jabari Parker’s and Thon Maker’s play carry over to Tuesday. The Celtics have to counter with a much improved first half, more aggression from Rozier, fewer silly fouls, and more buckets from Morris and more confidence from Tatum.
All those things occurred in the second half Sunday, but the Celtics put themselves in too large of a hole with their pathetic first 24 minutes. So the only thing they leave Milwaukee with is encouragement.
“We needed multiple great efforts from everybody to get this win,” Morris said. “Their bench played well. They outplayed us, but we still gave us our chance to win and that’s important.”
The reality is they need Rozier and Morris to be better than a combined 7 for 26 from the field. They can’t rely on halftime adjustments and a Brown/Tatum surge to win this series.
The Celtics have what it takes to beat Milwaukee and advance to the second round. They are going to have to accept that Antetokounmpo is going to make dynamic plays and is just physically better than anyone the Celtics have to offer. They offered defensive resistance to Middleton on Sunday and he still hit some difficult shots.
But those things also occurred in the first two games when the Celtics prevailed. So they should be pleased that they responded from being punched in the mouth Sunday and were probably a play from winning this game.
There is no longer any margin for error or for slow starts. The Celtics have to retake control of this series by being the better and more passionate and more desperate team. They were in the second half of Game 4.
It was good, but not good enough.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.