MILWAUKEE — So is this where it’s going to end, the sparkling new Fiserv Forum, packed with home fans chanting “Bucks in 5!” and with Giannis Antetokounmpo galloping up and down the court displaying his array of dynamic, one-handed dunks before being removed to a standing ovation late in the third quarter when the Bucks are up 30?
Is this how the Celtics are going to go out? It certainly seems that way after they were drubbed yet again, 113-101, in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Monday at TD Garden. They don’t look prepared, united, or concerned enough to make this a series again. At least it doesn’t seem that way.
But the great thing about playoff series is that momentum can swing after just one game. Remember when Paul Pierce said the Bucks we’re done after Game 1? Remember how the Toronto Raptors were cooked when they trailed the Philadelphia 76ers, 2-1, before winning Game 4 in Philadelphia?
The Denver Nuggets looked fried after their four-overtime loss to the Portland Trail Blazers but took control of the series by winning Game 4. One win matters and at this point, it’s all the Celtics can hope for in their quest to do pretty much the impossible.
Just one win could change this series. The Bucks are trying to not come back to Boston and, if they have to, it will be to prevent a Game 7, where anything could happen.
Can they win in Boston for a third time? They probably could, but they don’t want to be pushed any further than five games. Not being able to finish the Celtics on Wednesday will be a psychological blow to the surging Bucks.
The Celtics can win Game 5. But several things have to happen.
1.) The Celtics have to hit shots — They made 11 field goals in the first quarter of Game 4 and then 13 combined in the second and third quarters. They have missed open looks, starting with Kyrie Irving, who has been putrid in this series and all but two games in the playoffs.
Irving has to score at least 28 points and not on 28 shots. He has to be efficient. He has to score at the rim and get to the free throw line. Kyrie needs to be at his best.
2.) The Celtics have to defend better for longer stretches — Midway through the third quarter is when they have to remain focused. That’s when George Hill gets to the rim easily on pick-and-rolls. That’s where Antetokounmpo has finally worn down the defense or Pat Connaughton gets open for a 3-pointer. The Celtics can’t get disheartened when a couple of possessions don’t go their way. For the first time this season, the Celtics have to display fortitude consistently. Are they capable?
And Irving has to defend better. There were several plays in the past two games when he just missed on help defense or just gave up on a play, allowing Hill or Eric Bledsoe to score at the rim. His defensive miscues are inexcusable because it involves effort.
3.) The bench has to show up — The Boston bench was outscored, 32-7, in Game 4 and it’s beginning to become evident that Danny Ainge built a bench of guys who aren’t comfortable with secondary roles.
The Bucks don’t have those issues. Hill is a veteran looking for a ring. Connaughton is just trying to stay in the league. Ersan Ilyasova is in his second stint with the Bucks and is accustomed to his role as a hired gun off the bench.
The Bucks know and embrace their roles. The Celtics, well, they know their roles.
And finally, 4.) The Celtics have to play a hard, rigorous and competitive 48 minutes and not relent, despite adversity — They have to believe they can beat the Bucks at least once and then move on to the next one. Thinking three wins right now is too much of a mental burden.
“When we look at it on film, the great conundrum is I think if we do what we’re doing better, we’d give ourselves a good chance,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said during a conference call Tuesday. “We just haven’t done it as well as we need to and as consistently as we need to. That being said, you’re always looking for small sparks and we’ll look at that appropriately and go from there. These games are long games. It takes a lot to win a game. They’ve got to beat us one more time and we need to play every possession with the urgency of its lose or go home. Or win or go home, excuse me.”
Game 5 will tell a lot about how much the Celtics truly care about Stevens, their teammates, and themselves. Will they let go of the rope once Antetokounmpo gets going? Will they fold if Khris Middleton hits a couple of 3-pointers? They can’t. But Stevens can’t guarantee that won’t happen.
“I think these kind of challenges, these kind of situations, show a lot about people,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you’re always going to have success, but competing at the level you need to compete and making sure you’re as urgent as you’ve ever been on every possession is of ultimate importance.”
It’s possible but, wow, it just doesn’t seem probable.