MILWAUKEE -- A few weeks ago, following one of several head-scratching, that-should-never-happen-to-a-title-contender kind of losses for the Boston Celtics, Marcus Morris reminded us all how this team has been dealing with criticism all season so another bad regular season loss wasn’t going to change a thing.
“Basically, we just tell ourselves keep going, man,” Morris said at the time. “Everybody is going to doubt us because of the year we had, but when the playoffs hit, it’s basically a new season. We still have a chance at turning this thing around. We’re excited, man. Probably two years from now, they’ll do a ‘30 for 30’ on this team.”
He’s right, but it probably won’t be for the reasons he’s thinking.
A season that began with such promise and lofty expectations is now in the win-or-go-home zone following a 113-101 Game 4 loss to Milwaukee that has the Celtics looking up at a 3-1 series deficit with a Game 5 elimination tilt in Milwaukee on Wednesday.
Celtics players speak of staying confident, and that they can do what so few teams have done which is to rally from a 3-1 series deficit.
But there’s nothing about their play or body language that suggests otherwise.
One of the more telling moments that in so many ways sums up what kind of season this has been for the Celtics came in the closing seconds of Game 4, when Kyrie Irving walked off the floor with about 10 seconds remaining.
When asked about it after the loss, Irving said he did it because, “the game was over.”
Within the next 36 hours or so, the same is likely to be said for the Boston Celtics’ season.
“We gotta get a win,” Marcus Smart told NBC Sports Boston. “Right now, we’re like a wolf with his back against the wall; we gotta fight. Game 5 has to be a dog fight.”
And I have no doubt that Marcus Smart will step on the floor in Game 5 and play with the sense of urgency that the situation requires to compete, let alone knock off the Bucks for the second time in this series on their home floor, which is indeed a tall task to expect.
But for Boston to win, it’ll require more than fight.
It’ll require focus and maybe more than anything else, better play from the two “new guys” to the playoff mix this year — Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
There have been a number of Celtics players who have not played their best in this series, obviously.
But the play of these two, born on the same day two years apart, stands out for all the wrong reasons.
Irving has been at his worst at both ends of the floor in this series, making George Hill look like an All-Star with one clutch basket after another while defending him.
And when Irving has had the ball, he has shown an inability to make uncontested shots at a disturbingly alarming rate.
In Boston’s Game 4 loss, Irving was 7-for-22 shooting, which included him missing seven of his eight uncontested shots from the field.
Focusing on the Celtics’ last three games, all losses, Irving has shot just 23.3 percent (7-for-30) on uncontested shots, which is an abysmal number for one of the game’s elite scorers.
And then there’s Hayward, who seemed to have turned the corner towards being the Gordon Hayward who was an All-Star two years ago in Utah, only to revert back to looking like the Gordon Hayward we saw struggle mightily at the beginning of the season, which was expected.
But the playoffs?
Hayward’s inability to impact the game in any meaningful way has been among the many factors that have heavily contributed to Boston’s 3-1 series deficit.
In the three losses, Hayward has averaged 5.7 points while shooting 22.2 percent from the field. More telling than the lack of scoring and poor shooting, is the fact that the Celtics are a whopping minus-49 when he has been on the floor during the last three games.
He has truly been a difference-maker, but certainly not in the way he intended.
Of course, the Celtics are holding on to the faint hope that they can do the seemingly impossible, which would be to rally back and win a series in which they have been thoroughly outplayed in every way imaginable.
Defensively, it has been the Bucks making all the tough, multiple-effort plays at the rim as well as on the perimeter. It has been their second unit that has delivered a first-rate performance in outscoring, and in general, making a significantly greater impact than Boston’s backups on the game.
Milwaukee has also been the better team offensively, with and without Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was on the bench with foul trouble, along with Khris Middleton, during the third quarter of Game 4, which is when the Bucks — not the Celtics — surged ahead en route to victory.
“That was a moment there when we could have capitalized a little more and we didn’t for whatever reason,” said Boston’s Al Horford. “I just, I didn’t feel like … I’ll have to look at the film but I just didn’t feel like we really exploited, or played the way we wanted to play. We did it at times, but we didn’t do it enough, especially during those stretches.”
And that last statement on so many levels sums up the kind of season this has been for the Celtics, one whose narrative had such promise but appears to be closing in on its denouement that’s looking highly unlikely of having the happy ending these Celtics thought would come to fruition once the playoffs arrived.
“It’s win or go home,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “You play the next possession to win it and that’s it. You focus on that. It takes a lot of mental fortitude. It takes a lot of mental toughness. It reveals a lot. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
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