MILWAUKEE — Kyrie Irving sat with his arms crossed, leaning on the podium in front of him, the words, “Tell Me The Truth” visible as part of a larger message scrawled on the left breast of the jean jacket he wore to his postgame media conference.
And Irving told the truth: About the worst playoff performance of his career, about his desire to get his team back on track in Game 3, but especially about the opportunity the Celtics let slip away on Tuesday night when the Bucks evened their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Celtics at one game apiece.
"Going back home you always feel good, but this one would have been great to get,” said a wistful Irving.
Forsberg: Irving eager to atone for Game 2 dud
When the Celtics jumped out to an early seven-point lead on Tuesday night, even as Irving uncharacteristically struggled with his shot, it sorta felt like Boston had the Bucks on the ropes. Milwaukee was in danger of falling into an 0-2 hole with three of the next four games in Boston. The Celtics had a chance to put a stranglehold on the series.
Even though Boston’s play didn’t inspire much confidence over the first 29 minutes, it was still a one-possession game with seven minutes to play in the third quarter. And then the wheels came off for the Celtics. Quickly.
And just like that the tenor of the series changed as well.
Over a three-minute span, the Celtics missed three shots and turned the ball over three times as their offense became completely undisciplined. The Bucks pushed their lead to 14 in that short span, and it would soar to 25 before the end of the quarter as the Celtics couldn’t catch themselves during the freefall.
Goodbye, thoughts of a 2-0 lead. Hello, dogfight of a series.
Listen, if you had told Celtics fans before the series tipped that Boston would go into Milwaukee, post a lopsided victory, split the two games, and return home having stolen home-court advantage, most would have gleefully taken it.
But the way Game 2 unfolded and the confidence that Boston helped breathe back into the Bucks, makes it that much harder to focus on the positives of Game 1.
Before the start of the series, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gave Boston only a 25 percent chance of winning based on season performance. The series turned to more of a coin flip — though Milwaukee was still slightly favored — after Boston’s Game 1 victory. Now? The Celtics sit with a 36 percent projection at winning the series, though it’s important to remember that the odds tilt heavily based on regular-season performance and — the third quarter of Tuesday’s game notwithstanding — Boston has played a more inspiring brand of basketball in these playoffs.
Here's the more pessimistic view: The Bucks didn’t just win Game 2 in dominant fashion, but they completely restored a shattered confidence. Antetokounmpo attacked with MVP-like aggression, Khris Middleton still hasn’t (seemingly) missed a shot against Boston in the playoffs the past two seasons, and Eric Bledsoe — fragile after another Game 1 dud — had a monster Game 2 on both ends with 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting and one elbow block on Irving’s final drive of the night.
Maybe worse: The Bucks stand to add reinforcements with Malcolm Brogdon potentially back for Game 3. Brogdon was on the court Tuesday doing some drills before Game 2 and, after ramping up his practice activities this week, all signs pointed to the Bucks getting back a player who drastically upgrades the production they’ve received while leaning on a Pat Connaughton/Sterling Brown combo. Brogdon also has a longstanding reputation as a Celtics killer.
The Green Kool-Aid view? In much the same way the Bucks made small tweaks after Game 1 and clutched to the notion that their offense couldn’t possibly play as poorly as it had, the Celtics will do the same after Game 2. It would be a surprise if Irving didn’t produce one of his more inspiring nights on Friday, whether that’s with his individual offense or finding ways to create for teammates while attacking a Bucks defense that swallowed him up throughout Game 2.
The buzzword in the Celtics’ locker room after Tuesday’s loss was “urgency.” Irving, Al Horford, Marcus Morris, and coach Brad Stevens all used the word. As Stevens noted, "We talked about matching their urgency and beating their urgency but we didn’t do that.”
Added Marcus Morris: "They came out, they wanted it a little more, and we got away from our game plan. Friday will be different."
The Celtics better hope it is. Boston has left itself little room to downshift. The Celtics did what they needed to do to win this series by stealing a game on the road, but they must take care of home court because the idea of winning a Game 5 or 7 on the road should seem particularly daunting.
Morris was asked if the Celtics could take solace in a split.
“At this point, we don’t have a choice,” said Morris. "But we’ll take what it is, and go back and watch film for the next couple days and see what we did right, see what we can fix. And then, Friday, come out with a different attitude at the Garden.”
Despite Paul Pierce’s bold proclamations, it was pretty obvious that Boston wasn’t going to breeze here. Celtics fans had every reason to be bullish on their team after what they saw in Game 1 — and the four-game sweep of Indiana that preceded it — but the Bucks were the best team in the NBA for 82 games and have a player that should be league MVP. This was never going to be easy.
It’s a dogfight now. The Celtics had been feeding off good vibes throughout these playoffs, but we’ll find out a lot more about just how much progress this team has made by the way it responds to the first loss of the postseason.
Will they scrap and claw like they did during the first five games of the postseason, or crumble like they did in Game 2?
The urgency level in Game 3 will tell us an awful lot about how this series will play out from here.
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