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Gary Washburn | On Basketball

Celtics scream foul as they kiss No. 1 seed goodbye

The Celtics' Jayson Tatum (0) tried to hold off the Bucks’ Nikola Mirotic in the second half.
The Celtics' Jayson Tatum (0) tried to hold off the Bucks’ Nikola Mirotic in the second half.(aaron gash/associated press)

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MILWAUKEE — The Celtics didn’t have much to say after their infuriating 98-97 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, which probably cost them any chance at the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, a spot they were predicted to seize with ease in October.

It’s hard to talk when you are grinding your teeth and there was a collective anger in the locker room at Fiserv Forum on Thursday. Marcus Morris chided officials after he felt he was fouled making a back cut that forced him to slip and botch the final play.

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Instead, Kyrie Irving took on two defenders and missed a difficult lefthanded floating hook at the buzzer. The loss dropped the Celtics 7½ games back of the Bucks with 23 to play and no more head-to-head matchups, so it’s time to start planning for the third seed.

It’s a major disappointment, considering the hype generated by the returns of Irving and Gordon Hayward from injuries. The Celtics should be mad, however, because they were on the verge of winning despite a poor shooting night, six free throws (two in the second half, none in the fourth quarter) and 5 points from the reserves in the second half.

The Celtics could have played better but they did play as if they were one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks lead the NBA in point differential, and they can blow out teams. With the Celtics shooting so terribly through three quarters, Milwaukee had multiple chances to pull away but couldn’t.

And the Boston defense should be credited for not letting Giannis Antetokounmpo go completely crazy (30 points on 11-for-19 shooting), which ensured the Celtics would have a chance down the stretch. This game was reminiscent of the 2017-18 Celtics, whose defense kept it close against elite teams.

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The Bucks had their moments offensively, especially from the 3-point line, but it seems the Celtics have figured out a way to compete with Milwaukee that will be crucial in a potential playoff series. They blitzed the Bucks, amassed a bunch of deflections, and stymied Milwaukee’s transition game.

The only real setback was the ending, a defensive slip-up that allowed Khris Middleton to hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 32.5 seconds left, and then Middleton holding on to Morris, which prevented him from getting a clean cut to the basket for the potential winning basket. The Celtics aren’t as much at fault for this loss inasmuch as they didn’t get many breaks.

They had a right to be mad but they also know they have the talent and capability to beat the Bucks in a seven-game series. At this point, home-court advantage throughout the playoffs is no longer a possibility, so the Celtics are playing for the best matchup and with the primary goal of playing their best basketball in April.

“In a lot of ways that started in Philly for us, that mind-set that we’re going to see what we’re made of with this long stretch,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “This is a great opportunity over the next however many weeks to see if we can get better. That’s ultimately the goal. Our goal is to play the best that we could be playing in the middle of April when the playoffs start. Tests like this and moments like these, you can learn a lot about yourself.”

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That’s all that matters. The Celtics wasted their chance a few weeks ago to be a legitimate contender for the top seed. The Bucks have been the most consistent team in the Eastern Conference throughout the season. They didn’t play their best Thursday but were able to depend on Antetokounmpo, who scored 12 of the Bucks’ 26 fourth-quarter points, but the Celtics outscored Milwaukee by 7 points when he was on the floor in the final period.

The victory Thursday isn’t a moral one. This team is beyond that. But it’s about time the Celtics expected better from themselves and more consistency. They ended the first half with two impressive wins and began the second half with a commendable defensive effort along with a few miscues that cost them the win.

So while there is anger at the officiating and frustration about several missed open shots, the Celtics are discovering the formula for lasting power throughout the postseason. There aren’t many nights where Irving is going to miss 11 of his first 12 shots or four of five starters will shoot 30 percent from the field and the Celtics will have a chance to win on the final possession.

The record mattered in October and November when there were still hopes of the No. 1 seed. But now the key is improvement. The key is cohesion. The key is getting Hayward back healthy. The key is signing another quality big man who can defend and rebound.

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The Celtics took a theoretic positive first step after the break. But the road will be difficult. They have Toronto on Tuesday. They still have to go west. They will get plenty of time to bond and figure themselves out. But they have every right to be of few words after this defeat, because they are still far away from the team they want to be.


Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.