Here are 14 thoughts and observations about the state of the Celtics as they try to claw back from a 3-1 deficit in their conference semifinal against the top-seeded Bucks.
■ Coach Brad Stevens on Tuesday hinted at some minor tweaks for Wednesday’s Game 5 in Milwaukee.
There aren’t really any jarring moves he could make to the starting lineup, and that group has actually played quite well together, outscoring the Bucks by 13.6 points per 100 possessions in the series. The unit even has a +5.6 net rating over the last three losses, which is a startling figure considering Boston has lost three games by a total of 40 points.
But the five-man lineup consisting of Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, Al Horford, and Jayson Tatum has played just 47 total minutes together, less than one quarter of the series. Stevens might look for ways to keep them on the court together more often.
■ Even if that happens, though, the Celtics will need a lift from their bench. In Game 4, the reserves combined to go just 3 for 17 and finished with 7 points and four turnovers. The struggles of Gordon Hayward have been most glaring.
The Celtics have a -16.2 net rating with Hayward on the floor in this series and a +17.7 when he is off of it. Stevens has been loyal to Hayward all season, and it seemed to pay off when the forward surged down the stretch. But Hayward has regressed tremendously against the Bucks.
Although he is still making good passes, he looks uneasy when he probes the lane searching for openings. Hayward’s 13 free throw night in the April 3 win over the Heat appeared to indicate that the aggressive, attacking All-Star was returning. But he has attempted just eight foul shots over four games vs. Milwaukee.
“I thought Gordon, like a lot of our guys, made a lot of the right plays there in the first half or in the first 30 minutes of the game, driving, kicking, and making the right plays,” Stevens said. “He just hasn’t seen the ball go in as much, but he hasn’t had a lot of opportunity either. I think there’s a combination of things that need to happen, but I need to do a better job of getting us organized with both groups, but especially that second group.”
■ Amid all the schematic adjustments, rotation changes, effort levels, and everything else, sometimes basketball just boils down to shot-making. And in Game 4, the Celtics simply did not do a very good job of that. According to the league’s tracking data, Boston made just 12 of 47 uncontested shots.
■ Irving was just 1 for 8 on uncontested field goal attempts, and his poor shooting in these playoffs has become an unavoidable story. He is now shooting 39.9 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from beyond the 3-point line during the postseason. He has made more than 36.8 percent of his shots in just two of Boston’s eight playoff games, and he’s 19 for 62 over the last three, all Boston losses.
■ Having said that, some of Irving’s most disheartening play has come on defense. He has never been an elite defender, but there have been numerous occasions in this series when his effort has dipped dramatically, whether crawling to close out on a shooter, providing little resistance on drives to the basket, or making poor choices while communicating on switches with teammates. Irving’s defensive intensity often coincides with his shot-making — or lack thereof — and that has been a bitter pill for the Celtics.
■ The defensive issues are hardly all Irving’s fault, however. Several times on Monday, Irving ended up on Giannis Antetokounmpo after switching on a screen. This mismatch will rarely end well for Boston. Stevens on Tuesday did not really have issues with the switches; he was just not happy with how Boston handled them as a team afterward.
“I just thought when we did get switched, we didn’t say, ‘OK, there is a threat, and the biggest threat in the room is the guy with the ball on one of our smalls,’ ” Stevens said. “I think there are times where you have to switch appropriately, but at that time that you really have to sell out to his drives and help each other. Obviously, we want to keep size on him as much as possible. I did not think we always did that well in transition and I did not think we always did that well throughout some of their actions.”
■ The Bucks had tremendous success close to the basket Monday, even when resistance was there. They made 27 of 33 contested shots at the rim, compared with 13 of 25 by Boston.
■ After the loss, Morris pointed out once again that the Celtics are at their best when the ball is moving. In this game, the Bucks threw 26 more passes than the Celtics did. That might not sound like a lot over the course of a game, but it’s more than six extra passes per quarter.
■ Irving was not asked about Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer after the game, but he twice offered praise for him anyway.
“Mike does a great job of calling plays on the fly, plays that have worked all series,” he said.
“Mike Budenholzer is putting myself, other guys in different positions where you’re asked to think multiple moves ahead,” he added later.
On their own, they are generally harmless compliments for a coach whose 60-win team is steamrolling through the playoffs. But they raised a few eyebrows from those wondering if they were in some way an indictment on Stevens.
Stevens and Irving appear to have a very good working relationship filled with mutual respect. But given the uneasy climate the Celtics find themselves in, it was fair to wonder if Irving’s statements Monday were a subtle plea for more from his head coach.
■ After going just 7 for 22 on Monday, Irving was mostly unbothered.
“I’m trying to do it all,” he said. “For me, the 22 shots, I should have shot 30. I’m that great of a shooter. I think that the consistency of just going at it, staying aggressive is always going to put us in a great position.”
This was probably not the best look for him, but it was hardly surprising. Irving has constantly doubled-down on himself during times of distress, so there was no reason to believe this situation would be different.
■ Antetokounmpo is just 24 years old and is primed to be the best player in the NBA for years to come. He is soft-spoken and has a generally gentle personality, so it will be interesting to see if his story arc as an eventual villain emerges.
After Monday’s game, a young boy was brought into the locker room to have his Antetokounmpo jersey signed by Antetokounmpo himself. In situations like this, players usually give their autograph and smile for a picture and move on. But Antetokounmpo, without any cameras rolling or anyone else even nearby, took the time to ask the boy about his own love for basketball. He asked him about his position, and how long he had been playing, and how tall he was. It was a simple moment, but it was a good example of how Antetokounmpo could be in position to be one of the game’s great ambassadors.
■ There is no way to really stop Antetokounmpo, but after the Game 4 loss Horford insisted that the best hope was by battling his size and length with all the size and length the Celtics could muster.
“We need to have bigger bodies on him as much as we can,” he said, “whether it’s myself, [Aron] Baynes, Morris. We need to continue for us to guard him as much as possible.”
Even beyond Antetokounmpo, the Bucks are big and long, and they have been dominant in the paint throughout this series.
Perhaps the Celtics should try countering with some more size of their own, either with an expanded role for Baynes, or a chance for Daniel Theis. The issue is that could leave the Celtics more exposed on the perimeter, but that’s why the Bucks won 60 games this year.
■ The Celtics now face a daunting 3-1 deficit. Irving, of course, has dug out of such a hole before. In 2016, the Cavaliers famously clawed back and won the NBA title against the Warriors. After Monday’s game, he was asked what he could pull from that experience this time.
“It’s hard to make any comparisons at this stage of anything,” he said. “It’s really hard because you just have an appreciation of where you were at that time and the amount of experience that was garnered throughout the series and throughout the playoffs.”
The real answer should have been: “Um, dude, that team had LeBron James.”
■ Lastly on Irving: He played the entire second half on Monday and 43 minutes, 30 seconds in the game, his highest total as a Celtic.