Celtics didn’t get many breaks in this one, and their final push wasn’t enough
MILWAUKEE — A game that was messy and without flow throughout suddenly turned intense and frenetic at the end, with two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference exchanging big baskets and daring the other to match them.
In the end, though, Kyrie Irving’s off-balance one-handed shot at the buzzer was the last miss that mattered, as the Bucks escaped with a 98-97 win Thursday night and solidified their standing atop the East.
“I thought we stayed with it,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I thought we stayed together. It’s certainly not worth celebrating when you get beat. So, there were good things, but there are things we can do better, and we’ll hopefully do that.”
With 2 minutes, 49 seconds left, Irving hit a 3-pointer that gave the Celtics a 90-89 lead, their first since late in the second quarter. The Bucks inched back in front, 95-92, before Irving zipped a behind-the-back pass to Al Horford for a 3-pointer that tied the score with 54.7 seconds left.
At the other end, however, the Celtics’ defense that had been so solid for much of the night was scattered, and Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton ended up alone at the top of the key before he drilled a three to put Milwaukee back ahead, 98-95.
“Just miscommunication,” Marcus Smart said. “You know, a guy fell down and we were all trying to help each other out, and they made a great read and they found him.”
After a timeout, Irving dashed to the hoop for an easy layup with 27.5 seconds left, which was significant because it left the Celtics enough time to play defense instead of fouling.
The Celtics forced a jump ball with just 0.2 seconds left on the shot clock, which is not enough time to catch the ball. Giannis Antetokounmpo tipped the ball to Brook Lopez, who appeared to tip the ball off the rim. But the Bucks were called for a shot-clock violation, giving Boston possession with 3.5 seconds left.
Referee crew chief Mike Callahan told a pool reporter after the game that a legal tip can occur with 0.1 seconds left, but apparently they ruled that Lopez caught the ball.
Stevens drew up a play in which Irving would set a back screen for Marcus Morris, ideally setting him up for the winning layup. The hope was that with so much obvious focus on Irving, this brief slice of misdirection would catch the Bucks off guard.
Irving appeared to nudge Middleton into Morris with his screen, and Middleton appeared to then hold Morris, potentially causing him to slip. But no fouls were called, and the option to go to Morris was gone. Of course, having the ball in Irving’s hands with 3.5 seconds to make magic is not generally a bad option, either.
As Irving carved into the paint, though, the Bucks swarmed there to meet him. Horford was open along the left arc, but Irving ended up flipping a difficult lefthanded shot over his shoulder that thudded off the back of the rim.
“I tried to set a good screen on [Morris],” Irving said. “I don’t know if he got fouled or not. I don’t know what happened. And then I had 3.5, tried to make the best play.”
Irving finished with a team-high 22 points but made just 9 of 27 shots, including a 1-for-10 first half. After a dazzling stretch in which Irving made at least half of his shots in 11 of 12 games, he has not shot below 50 percent from the field in four of his last seven.
Horford had 21 points and a career-high 17 rebounds for the Celtics, who made a season-low 38.2 percent of their shots overall. Forward Gordon Hayward missed the game with a sprained ankle.
Antetokounmpo had 30 points and 13 rebounds to lead the Bucks, who have now matched their win total from all of last season with 44. That year ended with a hard-fought loss to the Celtics in a seven-game first-round playoff series. But this year, Milwaukee is thinking much bigger.
The fifth-place Celtics now trail the first-place Bucks by 7½ games, a margin that figures to be insurmountable with just 23 games remaining. The Celtics’ greater concern will be securing home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs by moving out of the No. 5 spot. They now trail the fourth-place 76ers by one game.
Milwaukee was slowed by several lengthy scoring droughts in Thursday’s game, including when it started the third quarter by tallying 3 points over the first six minutes. The problem for the Celtics was that their offense was just as wobbly. In this case, it failed to take the lead despite trailing by just 6 points at halftime.
“That happens,” Horford said. “We got really good looks and they just didn’t go down for us. That was tough. They were looks we normally make and we didn’t make them.”
The Bucks led by as many as 9 points early in the final quarter but were unable to put Boston away. They hit yet another scoring drought midway through the period, and back-to-back 3-pointers by Irving and Jayson Tatum pulled Boston within 85-83 with 5:03 left. But the Celtics’ final push was not quite enough.