Who really thought the Celtics were going to have it easy?
MILWAUKEE — Admit it, Celtic fans, you were getting a little cocky about this.
The playoff narrative was that the Celtics had fixed everything after their disappointing regular season. They swept the Indiana Pacers in Round 1, then spanked the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks by 22 points in the first game of the Eastern Conference semifinal. Hot-take artist Paul Pierce announced that the series was officially over and some of us spent 48 hours pondering whether it would be better for the Celts to face the Sixers or the Raptors in the conference final.
This Green Team Dream carried over into the first half of Game 2 at the Fiserv Forum Tuesday. Boston again bottled up Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first quarter (zero baskets) and bolted to a 7-point lead, all without much contribution from Kyrie Irving.
It felt inevitable. The Celts were going to humble the Bucks on their own court again. A sweep of the 60-win Bucks did not seem out of the realm of possibility.
And then reality happened.
A 28-2 run by the Bucks in the third quarter happened. Khris Middleton (28 points) started raining threes on the heads of the Celtics and Giannis (29 points) kept going to the line (13 for 18 from the stripe) and the Celtics reverted to the worst version of themselves.
The Bucks gored the Celtics, scoring 39 in the quarter and led, 98-73, after three. It was party time in Brewtown. I hadn’t seen folks in this town this happy since Harvey Kuenn’s Brewers won the 1982 American League pennant. Schlitz for everyone!
The series resumes Friday night on Causeway Street. It will be the Celtics’ first chance to honor the great John Havlicek, who died last Thursday at the age of 79.
Meanwhile, what to make of what we have seen in these first two games?
In Game 1, the Celtics took Giannis out of the game and Irving was the best player on the floor. By a lot.
In between games, we stood ready to mock Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer when he said, “I think adjustments and all those things are somewhat overrated . . . It’s just us playing better.’’
Turns out the coach knew what he was saying. The Bucks continued to let the Celtics close the door on Giannis down low in the first half. Milwaukee settled for a million (actually 47) 3-point shots. And then made a ton. Middleton made 7 of 10 from international waters. Brook Lopez and the much-ridiculed Eric Bledsoe each made three. Meanwhile, Irving delivered a stinkbomb (4-for-18 shooting) and Jayson Tatum (9 points in two games) sleptwalked through his 24 minutes of floor time.
So much for flipping the switch.
“I thought they dominated a lot of the first half and we were lucky to be down 4,’’ said Celtic coach Brad Stevens. “It just steamrolled on us. They were great tonight. They deserved to win and we need to look at what we can do better.
“We talked about matching their urgency, but we didn’t do that . . . I just didn’t think we as a team were very good. The just wanted to do it better and harder and they did.’’
Irving finished with 9 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists.
“For me, I just got to be more efficient,’’ said Irving. “They did a great job of switching tonight. I didn’t put my stamp on that. But when you have them shooting 47 threes and make 20 of them, that bites you in the butt . . . But that’s the way they played all season, so we got to be ready to weather the storm and be ready for Game 3.
“I think I already have a clue as to how I want to go into Game 3. This is what you live for. This is the type of basketball you want to be playing at this time of year.’’
The Bucks lost two straight only once this season. They won more games than any team in the NBA. They won 45 games by 10 or more points. Perhaps we should be taking them seriously.
“Everybody knew Game 1 was not going to repeat itself,’’ said Stevens. “They put us where they wanted to when they were on defense and when they were on offense, they took us where they wanted to.’’
Stevens on Middleton: “We have to do a better job on him. We did not do a good job on him. He was too open.’’
Budenholzer said, “Our guys competed, they got after it. They totally bought in. I thought Giannis’s mind-set was what he needed to do and what we need to do. He’s going to get to the foul line a lot.
“Boston played well the other day and we didn’t play well, Today we played better. Collectively, we played better. Now we’ll go to Boston and it will be a great game Friday.’’
LeBron James had a stranglehold on the NBA’s Eastern Conference for the last eight years, but a shot in the Finals is up for grabs this spring.
Milwaukee says, “Fear the Deer”.
Philadelphia says, “Trust the Process”.
Toronto says, “We the North”.
What does Boston say in the quest for its 18th NBA championship?
Eighteen for 17 would be nice.
But the Celtics will have to play better than this.