MILWAUKEE — The Celtics’ locker room was as quiet and sullen as it had been all year. Players dressed quietly at their stalls, or soaked their sore legs in ice buckets, or scrolled through their phones.
But none of the players talked to each other. They didn’t mention Giannis Antetokounmpo. They didn’t think about their missed opportunities. They didn’t talk about what comes next.
About seven months ago, they’d started on a journey that they believed would lead them to the NBA Finals. And if some bounces went their way and some young players continued to rise, maybe they would even win it.
No one envisioned an end like this, with the Bucks crushing them so thoroughly in Game 5 of the conference semifinals, 116-91, on Wednesday night that the Milwaukee fans were able to spend the better part of the fourth quarter reveling and partying while the most important players on both teams just watched from the bench.
The Celtics started the series with such promise by storming to a Game 1 win here, but they were mostly walloped in the next four.
“Nothing we can do about the season now,” point guard Terry Rozier said. “It’s over with.”
In an interview room across the hall from Boston’s locker room, Celtics coach Brad Stevens let out a sigh before he gave an answer about where this season had gone wrong. Stevens has established himself as one of the NBA’s brightest young minds, but this was the first time a year has ended with a massive letdown, and it was new to him.
Even though some of his other Celtics teams won fewer games or lost earlier in the playoffs, they had always charged and clawed until the end, night after night. This one, despite its talent, had not.
“That’s probably the part that eats at me the most,” Stevens said. “I’ve been a coach for 12 years, and we let go of the rope and cracked more than we probably should have. And we need to be better than that.
“I’ll be the first to say that as far as any other year that I’ve been a head coach it’s certainly been the most trying. I think I did a bad job. Like, at the end of the day, as a coach, if your team doesn’t find its best fit together, that’s on you. So I’ll do a lot of deep dives into how I can be better.”
About 10 minutes later, Celtics star Kyrie Irving entered the interview room as Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer finished up his news conference. Irving blended in among some reporters as he scrolled through his phone and waited for his turn.
For Irving, this was supposed to be the year he had always envisioned. He finally had his own team to lead, and he was finally healthy. And while he had plenty of dazzling moments during the regular season, the 49 wins that team compiled on his watch fell short of everyone’s expectations.
All along, Irving vowed to power through the playoffs, when the games and the moments were at their biggest. But in this series, he was mostly silenced, with each bad game followed by an even worse one.
Game 5 was the nadir, when Irving was 6 for 21, with 15 points, 1 assist, and 1 rebound, along with several more defensive lapses that left his teammates on an island.
“Truth be told, it’s no time to be disappointed,” Irving said. “You take your lessons, you take your [expletive]-whipping that they handed us, and you move on. It’s a basketball journey. Obviously, you want to keep playing but they put a halt to that.”
Now, of course, so much attention will turn toward the next step in Irving’s journey, wherever it leads him. He will be a free agent once he opts out of the final year of his contract. His October proclamation that he intends to re-sign with the Celtics now seems so long ago, and there is little reason his performances or the team’s should give anyone reason to feel great about that prospect.
After Wednesday’s loss, he was asked what kinds of things he will be looking for when he considers his next destination, and it was little surprise that he was in no mood to give clues.
“I’m going to be honest,” he said. “I’m just trying to get back to Boston first, safely. See my family, decompress, do what human beings do.”
But Irving was hardly the lone issue on Wednesday. The Celtics made just 31.2 percent of their shots and 17.9 percent of their 3-pointers, and when the game began to escape them in the second half, they once again wilted.
Milwaukee, behind its all-everything forward Antetokounmpo, now advances to the conference finals, where it will face the Raptors or 76ers. And it must be considered a threat to win the NBA title.
Stevens said that after every season he compiles clip packages for his players showing other teams, showing the habits that he wants his team to embrace. And he said that this year, it will be filled with footage of these Bucks.
“They’ve been building habits every day,” Stevens said. “And those habits showed up, and they showed up over and over again . . . They were tremendous.”
The Celtics will enter another offseason that is sure to be filled with drama and fireworks and angst. They will have as many as four first-round draft picks. They will soon dangle some if not all of them in what figures to be a relentless pursuit of Pelicans disgruntled superstar Anthony Davis. They will try to convince Irving that despite this unsavory end, Boston is the best place for him long-term.
Al Horford, who could also opt out of the final year of his four-year deal this summer, affirmed after Wednesday’s loss that he hopes to remain a Celtic moving forward. Marcus Morris, an unrestricted free agent who was one of the pleasant surprises of the postseason, said the same.
But even as the Celtics navigate the future, there will surely still be some lingering sting from this season that ended so much sooner than so many expected.
“I understand that we didn’t meet the outside expectations and we really rode a roller coaster a lot of the year and it was difficult,” Stevens said. “But I do think, and I told the guys in there, I did think they showed a lot of character in a lot of different times to keep coming back and stay together. I’ve said from the get-go, this time in the locker room, when they’re all together is great. We just couldn’t find it playing together as well as we had hoped.”