MILWAUKEE — The Celtics spent over half of Sunday’s Game 4 being annihilated by the Bucks, and it was fair to question whether Milwaukee was indeed the best team in this opening-round series. Since arriving here, Boston had shown little fight or fortitude, and the Bucks’ adjustments had left Boston’s players dazed and confused.
But this team has made a habit of constructing massive comebacks all season, so it decided to do it once more. The Celtics had erased a 20-point second-half deficit to grab the lead in the final minute.
Now they trailed by 2 again, with 5.1 seconds left, and coach Brad Stevens called time out. His initial thought was to go for the win. The play called for an inbounds pass to Marcus Morris in the post, allowing Morris to look for a curling Terry Rozier beyond the 3-point line.
Al Horford set a screen for Rozier, but Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon instantly switched onto him, and Morris saw it. The clock was running out, and so were the options. So Morris squared up, took a hard dribble to his right, and lofted a 14-foot fadeaway that thudded off the back of the rim, allowing the Bucks to escape with a 104-102 win that evened this best-of-seven series, 2-2.
After the miss, Morris retreated to Boston’s bench a few feet away, crouched down, and sunk his head into his hands. Streamers fell from the ceiling of the Bradley Center, and another rowdy Bucks crowd roared in approval.
When the Celtics grabbed wins in the first two games, including a convincing Game 2 effort, there was talk of a possible sweep. Now, the only thing that is certain is that this series will at least return to Milwaukee for a Game 6.
The Celtics do not need to win here to move on, but the idea of a winner-take-all Game 7, where anything is possible, cannot be appealing to them, either. So closing out in six will be the goal. Game 5 will be played in Boston on Tuesday night.
“They did what they were supposed to do,” Morris said of the Bucks. “We gave them a rumble. They got this win and now we go back to Boston, where we play really well at, and take care of business.”
Morris’s miss at the buzzer capped a frenetic final minute. The Bucks, who let a 75-55 third-quarter lead evaporate, still led, 99-95, with 1:30 left before Jaylen Brown sliced the deficit to 1 with a step-back 3-pointer.
After a rocky opening quarter, the second-year forward was mostly masterful for the Celtics, going 12 for 18 and scoring 31 of his playoff career-high 34 points.
“He’s the only reason we were in the game in the first half,” Stevens said. “And then in the second, he just continued and did a great job. Played with tremendous spirit, played with tremendous toughness, and made shots.”
Brown’s 21-and-under sidekick, Jayson Tatum, was not bad, either. The rookie scored 18 of his 21 points in the second half, including perhaps the biggest shot of his brief career, an 18-footer with 52.3 seconds left that gave Boston a 100-99 lead, its first since the opening quarter.
After a timeout, Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo missed an off-balance layup, and the Celtics raced the other way.
But Brown had the ball knocked away as he was charging toward the hoop for a layup. The Celtics could have run the clock down and nursed their lead a bit, but Stevens later said he had no issue with the aggression.
At the other end, Malcolm Brogdon drilled a 3-pointer from the right corner to give his team a 102-100 lead with 33.5 seconds remaining. After a pair of free throws by Al Horford tied the score, Brogdon missed a tough, driving layup. But Antetokounmpo and his impossibly long arms were there for a tip that rolled around the rim before sliding through the net with 5.1 seconds left.
“I was ready for the rebound,” Antetokounmpo said. “I went to that spot because I thought I could get a rebound, or someone could score from that spot.”
In the locker room afterward, the Celtics’ belief that they’d missed an excellent opportunity to seize control of the series was tempered by the understanding that they’d put themselves in quite a predicament to begin with.
Even though they have crawled out of big holes all season, it is not a sustainable approach, especially not in the playoffs.
“We’re battling,” Horford said. “We’re playing hard, but it’s not good enough just to play hard. This is why the playoffs are so challenging. But I think it’s good for our group. I think we’re learning. We’re looking forward to being able to go back home.”
The good news for the Celtics is that they could soon receive reinforcements. Guard Marcus Smart, who has been sidelined since tearing a tendon on his thumb on March 11, said before the game that he will see a hand specialist in New York on Tuesday, and that if all goes well, he will be cleared to immediately return to game action. Smart said the hope and belief is that he would be able to take the court for Game 6, and Boston’s loss Sunday ensured that the series will still be going then.