The Celtics just don’t have enough heart for this series. They don’t have enough heart for the Bucks, who are relentless, play together as a team and have players who deliver in clutch moments.
How else do you explain the most embarrassing stretch of the Brad Stevens era? When the Bucks built a lead with All-Stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton on the bench in the third quarter en route to their 113-101 Game 4 win at TD Garden.
That’s when the Celtics were supposed to step on the necks of their opponents because, unlike Game 3, they got the advantage in foul calls. They forced Antetokounmpo and Middleton into foul trouble. They had the Bucks vulnerable. Or so we thought.
But the difference between the two teams occurred in that third quarter. The Bucks shot 48 percent in that period and scored 33 points. Antetokounmpo scored 7 of those. Middleton didn’t score.
Kyrie Irving was once again whipped by veteran George Hill. Terry Rozier was a minus-10 in his three third-period minutes. Gordon Hayward returned to his November form, dribbling uselessly, looking for somebody to pass to because he didn’t want to take a shot.
It’s disappointing and demoralizing how poorly the Celtics have played in the past three games, especially for a team with championship aspirations. They were supposed to be the most talented team on every night they hit the floor, except when they faced the Warriors.
Instead, Hayward’s getting lapped by Pat Connaughton. Hill is kicking Irving’s butt. Antetokounmpo is unguardable and the rest of the Bucks are making those little plays, even the maligned Eric Bledsoe.
The Celtics are trailing, 3-1, in this series because they don’t have enough fortitude. They lack the ability to stomp on their opponent when they need to. They rely too much on the home run 3-pointer. Marcus Smart tried to add that spark but he missed six of his seven 3-point attempts and looked like he had missed a month, which he did.
The Bucks went right at the heart of the Celtics’ defense in the second half, exploiting their lack of a rim protector, scoring 42 of their 66 points in the paint.
But the crazy part is the Celtics began losing grip of this game late in the first quarter, when they led, 30-19, with 6.3 seconds left. After Jayson Tatum hit two free throws, Hill collected the inbounds pass and raced up the floor.
With 3-point specialist Connaughton planted in the corner, Rozier was assigned to ensure he didn’t get an open look. What does Rozier do? He races to become the third Celtics in the paint to challenge Hill, who ain’t exactly Russell Westbrook athletically.
And what does Hill do? He passes to an open Connaughton, and the Arlington native hits the open three at the buzzer. It leaves a sour taste to the Celtics after a positive quarter, and the Bucks then went on a 17-9 run to begin the second and the Celtics never had control of the game again.
Lacking defensive discipline, forgetting assignments, and botching fundamentals. The Bucks aren’t doing those things. The Celtics are.
“It really boils down to these runs,” Stevens said, trying to explain his team’s downfall. “We’re playing well for a lot of the game in the last two games and then letting go of it, especially at the defensive end of the floor.
“We don’t want to be in this position but we are. We’ve got to go to Milwaukee and do everything we can and give ourselves a chance to play here Friday.”
Right now it doesn’t appear the Celtics want badly enough to force a Game 6. Again, they were in a dogfight late in the third period, and the Bucks responded with a 9-0 run with a pull-up 3-pointer by Hill, an open paint jumper from Sterling Brown, a driving dunk after a steal by Connaughton, and then a Hill layup.
Antetokounmpo and Middleton looked on from the bench. Meanwhile, the Celtics were just trying to make a shot. They eventually lost their passion and then Antetokounmpo (39 points, 16 rebounds) returned and turned into Connie Hawkins 2.0 with a couple of impressive one-handed Stretch Armstrong dunks to cement the embarrassment.
The Bucks are the team the Celtics wish they could be right now. They shook off that Game 1 effort and responded like an NBA finalist would do. The Celtics are playing like they expect the Bucks to come back instead of snatching the game away.
They are front-running and then looking behind, certain that they will cave in once the Bucks gather themselves.
“They feel good about themselves and we have to break a rhythm like that,” Irving said. “We failed to do so. They’re doing things to test you. [Milwaukee coach] Mike Budenholzer is putting myself, other guys in different positions where you’re asked to think multiple moves ahead and if you’re not, they’ll force you into a tough shot.
“We can sit up here and say, ‘OK, we need to do this right or do that right’ but they’re still going to make you think. Once we take our foot off the gas pedal, they’re coming right back at us.”
The Bucks are doing what great teams do. They play hard despite not playing well. They then flourish when they are doing both at the same time. They don’t play hard only when they’re playing well. The Celtics are guilty of that.
So instead of conjuring memories of the 2013 Red Sox or even the 2018 Sox, these Celtics remind of us of the 2011 Sox. They seemed to have tuned out their coach. They fold in the face of adversity and their star power only looks good if you collect their basketball cards. It hasn’t translated to the court.
Monday was embarrassing for the Celtics — for Irving, Stevens and for the fans that have put their hopes into a team that just doesn’t seem to want to be great badly enough.