With the final seconds ticking away in the Celtics’ 113-101 Game 4 loss to the Bucks on Wednesday night, point guard Kyrie Irving stood up from the bench and headed toward the locker room.
TD Garden was more than half-empty at this point, another frustrating defeat sending Boston another step closer to ending this puzzling season. But there were fans left who noticed Irving’s early departure after yet another miserable shooting night, this one 7 for 22. Some told him to go back to be with his team, while others made one last plea for Irving to stay — not on the bench, but in Boston.
Now that the Celtics’ season is on the brink, there is a chance that this could have been Irving’s final home game as a Celtic. But right now, he and the rest of the team have much greater concerns. They know it will not be easy, but they also know this year is not over. Not yet at least.
“We don’t want to be in this position, but we are,” coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ve got to go to Milwaukee and do everything we can to give ourselves another chance to play Friday.”
Game 5 will be played on Wednesday at Fiserv Forum, where the top-seeded Bucks are 36-9 this season. The Celtics have already won there in these playoffs, but now they will have to do it twice more, which seems almost unfathomable given how this topsy-turvy year has unfolded.
When the Celtics stumbled into the postseason as the No. 4 seed after a disappointing 49-33 campaign, they talked openly about how grateful they were to have a clean slate and to finally have a chance to play games that truly matter. Then they won their first five games, including a thorough Game 1 win in Milwaukee, and it was fair to wonder if they’d been just waiting for this moment all along.
But really, that idea was a disservice to Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was spectacular as his team soared to the best record in the NBA, and has done plenty to back it up in these playoffs. On Monday he crafted yet another command performance, making 15 of 22 shots and finishing with 39 points, 16 rebounds, and 4 assists.
Irving has supreme skills and confidence, and certainly believes that he deserves to share a pedestal with Antetokounmpo. But this series, his first true playoff test without LeBron James at his side, has been grisly so far. Over the past three games he has made just 19 of 62 shots (30.6 percent). On Monday he also had a game-high four turnovers.
Irving reiterated on Monday that his struggles are the result of the attention the Bucks’ defense is paying to him. But the Celtics are throwing waves of defenders at Antetokounmpo, too, and that has not seemed to matter.
“It’s a little different when your rhythm is challenged every play down,” Irving said. “You’re being picked up full-court. They’re doing things to test you. The expectations on me are going to be sky-high. I try to utilize their aggression against them and still put my teammates in great position, while still being aggressive. I’m trying to do it all. For me, the 22 shots, I should have shot 30. I’m that great of a shooter.”
The responsibility for this loss hardly all falls on Irving, of course. As a team, the Celtics made just 37.8 percent of their shots and 22 percent of their 3-pointers. Plenty of the looks from beyond the arc were open, but very few actually went in.
Gordon Hayward, who seemed to have found a rhythm toward the end of the regular season, has once again appeared tentative and uneasy in this series. He had just 2 points Monday and is 4 for 18 from the field over the last three losses.
Marcus Smart returned Monday after missing a month with an oblique tear. He received a standing ovation when he checked in, and the crowd — and perhaps even the Celtics — were hoping that his tenacity would save them. But this was his first five-on-five action since he was hurt, and he appeared understandably rusty, going 1 for 7 with two turnovers in 15 minutes.
In the Game 3 loss, the Celtics were frustrated by the number of fouls called against them, as Antetokounmpo attempted a career-high 22 foul shots. Irving used an expletive afterward and said the parade of free throws was “ridiculous.” The Celtics could have no such gripe on Monday, however.
This time, the Bucks found themselves in considerable foul trouble when they trailed by 2 points early in the second half. But with Antetokounmpo and All-Star Khris Middleton on the bench with four fouls apiece, Milwaukee actually took the lead back and quickly extended it to 9 points behind more solid bench contributions from George Hill and Arlington native Pat Connaughton. The lead would never be seriously threatened again.
“Amazing to see the bench can keep playing hard, defending hard,” Antetokounmpo said. “Set the tone for us.”
Milwaukee’s two stars returned for the start of the fourth, and the Celtics eventually appeared demoralized, as the Bucks stormed into the paint for several uncontested baskets.
“Our offense is dictating our defense,” Marcus Morris said. “We miss shots, we’re not getting back. I feel like we’ve been pretty soft.”
Added Irving: “It’s been a consistent thing for us that we haven’t made shots and the defensive end of the floor has taken lapses,” Irving said. “But it just can’t happen going forward. We have no choice. At this point it’s do or die.”
By game’s end, many fans had shuffled to the exits, and some of those who were still there offered more boos. But about three minutes after the final buzzer there some scattered cheers throughout the arena, as if new hope had been found somewhere.
But the fans were just reacting to a goal the Bruins had scored in their playoff game against Columbus. Boston, it appears, might be ready to move on from this confounding Celtics team.