MILWAUKEE — It was a disastrous stretch that the Celtics endured far too many times during the regular season. They would be in the midst of a close game, fighting each possession, appearing competent enough to steal a win against a difficult opponent. And then suddenly they weren’t.
The Celtics played well enough for 2½ quarters Tuesday to perhaps steal Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Fiserv Forum, but they were completely let down by their starters, especially Kyrie Irving, whose failures lowlighted a miserable 18 minutes and suddenly the Bucks have taken back the series’ momentum.
Their 123-102 win over the Celtics was a strong response to Boston’s 22-point win in Game 1, but this was way more about the Celtics’ inability to score and then defend in key stretches, which allowed the Bucks to play freely and then send a message that they are indeed the favorites to win this series.
Irving played his worst game with the Celtics and worst statistical playoff game of his career. The Celtics trailed by 4 at halftime and Irving was just 2-for-12 shooting, and so the Irving offensive surge was expected in the second half.
But it never happened.
He missed long threes. He missed stepbacks. He missed acrobatic layups where he was challenged at the rim. He missed nearly everything.
And then that miserable final six minutes of the third quarter, when the Celtics were outscored 24-2 and went 1 for 12 from the field sealed their fate. They go home having accomplished their goal of getting a road win, but with an unsavory taste after getting punched in the teeth in Game 2.
Irving sat at the podium for his postgame interview, refusing to be optimistic about splitting the first two games, but promising to be different and better in Game 3.
“For me, I’ve just to be more efficient in controlling the tempo of the game, the pace, where I want to get to on the floor,” he said. “Just setting an example for my teammates, the way I want to play. I just didn’t put my stamp on that. We’ve just got to find a way to keep our tempo and that’s my job. I think I already have a clue the way I want to play in Game 3.”
Perhaps the good news for the Celtics is that they split in Milwaukee without Jayson Tatum having an impact on either game. He was 2-for-10 shooting for 5 points after going 2 for 7 for 4 points in Game 1. Tatum got into early foul trouble, missed some open looks that he usually makes, and just disappeared in the second half. The Celtics are going to need support for Irving for the rest of the series. Terry Rozier was 2 for 10; Gordon Hayward (1 for 5) reverted back to his November ways.
If the Celtics are going to beat the Bucks, they’ll have to win three of the next five, they’ll need a good Kyrie, and a good everybody else. Three guys – Marcus Morris, Al Horford, and Jaylen Brown – essentially showed up to play in Game 2.
“They were definitely the more physical team; they’re definitely focusing in on a couple of us,” Tatum said. “But we just can’t let it happen. I never get too excited when I play well or too down when I play bad. It’s a long series. I’ll be all right.”
It seems like the Celtics are just content to let Khris Middleton beat them in their playoff series and he’s obliging. In the nine playoff games against the Celtics, Middleton is 35 for 55 from the 3-point line (63.6 percent) and 82 for 142 from the field (57.7), and yet he was left open in Game 2 because the Celtics insisted on closing out on shooters that they should have allowed to shoot.
Such over-aggression enabled the Bucks to swing the ball to Middleton in the corner and the result was a swish.
It was an inexcusable breakdown. It’s as if the Celtics are waiting for Middleton to level off. And they should approach the rest of the series that he’s not.
“We did not do a good enough job on him all the way down the line,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “And he still might make it. But he got too many looks where he was too open.”
Take away Middleton, and the Bucks were a mere 13 for 37 from beyond the arc. The Celtics will take that clip. The key is forcing players who aren’t extraordinary to play extraordinary and containing those who are capable of dominant games. The Celtics did neither. Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 29 points and Middleton 28.
That wasn’t the game plan.
“We weren’t very good on either end,” Stevens said. “But I do think that our offensive settling and some of the shots that we forced probably steamrolled on us in a lot of ways. Everyone knew Game 1 was not going to repeat itself and they did a good job of owning the space on both end of the floor.”
It started with Irving starting slow and never picking it up, and when he didn’t rally after 30 minutes, the Celtics’ dam finally broke. But it wasn’t only on him. The Celtics were let down by most of their lineup. It was an ugly result and one that can’t happen again if the Celtics expect to win this series.
“There is no extra burden,” Irving said. “This is what Boston traded for me for. Being able to get back into the trenches, get ready for another battle on Friday. This is what you live for. Basketball is fun when you have to respond.”