BOSTON — Kick and stomp all you want about the officiating, here’s the bigger issue for a Celtics team that now finds itself in a 2-1 hole after Friday’s whistle-heavy loss to the Milwaukee Bucks: A team that hasn’t responded well to adversity finds itself with a very uphill battle in front of it.
Through Boston’s first five games of the postseason, we were sold that this team had changed its stripes. The Celtics spent most of the season crumbling at the first sign of adversity but found a way to rally back from second-half deficits in each of its first five playoff games, including all games in a first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers. Celtics players suggested that the playoffs had offered a reset button, a chance to hop off the regular-season roller coaster. They swore this was a new team.
But the past two games leave you wondering if much has changed. Make no mistake, the Bucks are elite opposition, and they are the No. 1 seed for a reason. Fans will understandably work themselves into a lather after watching potential league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo shoot a career-high 22 free throws (besting his previous mark of 19) and it’s fair to look beyond the final free-throw attempt totals (Milwaukee 36, Boston 32) that don’t quite tell the disparity.
Alas, what's dictated how the past two games have played out is Boston’s inability to compose itself when things started to go sideways. The Celtics came unglued in the third quarter Friday for the second time in as many games and, suddenly, that inspiring 1-0 series lead has morphed into a 2-1 deficit with the Bucks wrestling back home-court advantage.
Now, the Celtics find themselves facing a different sort of adversity. They have to figure out how to, (1) Restore the defensive wall that frustrated Antetokounmpo throughout Game 1 while minimizing his trips to the charity stripe, (2) Get back to a ball-moving offense that hunts for mismatches and doesn’t settle for contested isolation jumpers, and (3) Find the mental resolve that has gone missing the past two games.
Kyrie Irving, who promised to be better after his Game 2 dud, scored a team-high 29 points but on an inefficient 8-of-22 shooting in nearly 42 minutes. Irving got himself to line 12 times but continues to struggle with his shot, having now missed 14 shots in each of the past two games.
Irving seemed to recognize the bigger issue in front of his team after Friday’s loss. He vented initially about the number of whistles in Game 3 — “It’s getting ridiculous at this point,” he said. "It’s just slowing the f---ing game down.” — but then admitted the Celtics need to be better about not letting the whistles affect their play.
“The refs have a difficult job, we have a difficult job. Obviously, I could sit up here and complain, we know the disparity and what it is, but I’m not going to put all the emphasis on the refereeing,” said Irving. “I think there are a lot of controllable things on our end that we can be better at. Obviously, the officiating is going to be part of it, you wish that things can go your way but they don’t.
"We have to be able to respond in a better circumstance. We just have to respond better and I think we will do that going into Game 4. I’m confident in this group, I’m confident in the talent we have here, as well as the basketball IQ. We just have to bring it to another level.”
Game 3 Friday night felt a bit like Game 2 Tuesday night. The Celtics were actually out front of the Bucks, 82-81, with 3:44 to play in the third quarter when they came unglued. After Milwaukee sneaked out front on a pair of free throws, Hayward got into the paint but misfired on a floater. Next trip down, Gordon Hayward got a decent look at a 3-pointer from the wing but front-rimmed it. George Hill got improbably hot for Milwaukee, scoring the Bucks’ next nine points as the Bucks attacked the basket relentlessly, and Milwaukee’s lead went up to 11 with 80 seconds to play in the frame.
"We’ve just got to play better. This is a part of our test,” said Jaylen Brown. "We’ve got all the tools we need in the room. We’ve just got to play better.”
Asked about the mood in a quiet Celtics locker room, Brown stayed positive.
"We’ve just got to play better. That’s it,” said Brown. "I don’t know what to say. I’m looking forward to Game 4 on Monday. I know we’re looking forward to Game 4. We’ve got too many good players, too many dogs in this locker room. So, we’re all looking forward to it, and that’s the mindset.”
Brown successfully tiptoed around a landmine about how the Celtics can defend without fouling and admitted that Boston had to get past mad with all the whistles (“We shouldn’t let it affect us as much as it has, and we’ve got to be better,” he said.)
Celtics coach Brad Stevens could have gone to the podium, wallet in hand, and dealt with the $15,000 fine that might have come down if he had lambasted the officiating. He knew better. Boston’s coach said simply, “I don’t complain about officials. We have a lot of stuff we have to do better...We focus on us and the controllables. That’s the bottom line.”
The Celtics knew they had to play better than they did against the Pacers to have any shot at winning this series. Indiana and its starless roster didn’t have the type of talent to really make Boston pay when it endured scoring lulls. The Bucks got 35 points from the bench combo of Hill (9-for-12, 21 points) and local boy Pat Connaughton (5-for-11, 14 points). That was just south of the production of Irving and Hayward (2-for-8, 10 points).
Still, the Celtics need more from everybody to regain control of this series.
It’s all about the response. And it’s another chance to see if these Celtics have changed their ways, or if they’re the same team that couldn’t get out of its own way all season long.
"We have to respond,” said C's big man Al Horford. “We have to respond and win on Monday.”
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