5 takeaways from the Celtics’ near comeback against the Bucks in Game 4

The series is even at 2-2.

Jaylen Brown Boston Celtics
Jaylen Brown drives past Matthew Dellavedova during Game 4. –Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

COMMENTARY

The Celtics’ furious second-half comeback wasn’t enough to pull off a victory against the Bucks Sunday afternoon. With Milwaukee’s lead as large as 20 points midway through the third quarter, Boston tied the game at 77 apiece — and even held a one-point edge with the ball in the fourth quarter — but couldn’t cap the impressively scrappy rally with a victory.

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s tip-in — followed by Marcus Morris’s missed fadeaway jumper as the clock expired — sealed a 104-102 win for the Bucks. The series, now 2-2, heads back to the TD Garden for Game 5 Tuesday night at 7 p.m.

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“We’re battling,” Celtics veteran Al Horford told reporters after the loss. “We’re playing hard, but it’s not good enough just to play hard. This is why the playoffs are so challenging. But I think it’s good for our group. I think we’re learning. We’re looking forward to being able to go back home.”

Here’s what we learned from Boston’s hard-fought Game 4:

The team that won the first quarter once again won the game.

Sunday afternoon’s first-quarter score (24-17) was the closest it’s been all series, as the Celtics trailed the Bucks by only seven points after 12 minutes of basketball. The opening deficit was at least 10 points in each of the previous three games — and the team leading after the first quarter always held on to win.

That trend continued.

Boston was the better team in the early minutes, bringing back the team’s high-level of intensity that was noticeably absent in Game 3. The Bucks seemingly couldn’t get a good look at the basket thanks to the Celtics’ smothering defense that tried to poke the ball away at every opportunity. Antetokounmpo and Bucks forward Khris Middleton shot a combined 0-for-7 from the field to start the game.

But the Celtics couldn’t seem to connect, either. Despite several opportunities, including easy layups and open three-pointers, Boston was unable to capitalize on its aggressive play. At one point, the team was shooting 5-for-20 from the field and 2-for-11 at the rim. The lack of scoring became even more apparent when the Bucks began to knock down shots.

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Milwaukee proceeded to score 17 points in the final five minutes of the quarter, which was punctuated by Matthew Dellavedova scooping up a rolled ball for a steal and layup as time expired.

“We outplayed them until the end of the first quarter when we lost our minds,” coach Brad Stevens told his team during a timeout.

Jaylen Brown’s hard work is paying off.

The Celtics’ offensive struggles persisted into the second quarter. At the half, the team was shooting an abysmal 30.2 percent from the field and trailed 51-35. Milwaukee’s bench was also outscoring Boston’s bench, 22-6.

But Jaylen Brown, almost singlehandedly, kept the Celtics within striking distance. After a slow start — making just one basket in his first six attempts — Brown finished the game shooting 13-for-24 from the field and 5-for-8 from behind the arc. He scored 34 points, a new career high, and became the first player aged 21 or younger to notch multiple 30-point games in a single postseason since former Bulls point guard Derrick Rose in 2010.

Brown is shooting 46.4 percent from three-point range this series — an aspect of his game that has continued to develop since the Celtics selected him with the third overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Brown shot 29.4 percent from three his lone season at Cal and 34.1 percent his rookie season.

Beyond the stat sheet, Brown demonstrated tremendous poise, confidence, and control Sunday afternoon. His performance proved yet again age is just a number for the Celtics’ youngsters. He and 20-year-old Jayson Tatum combined for over half (55) the Celtics’ total points scored (102) in their losing effort.

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No deficit is too high for this team.

Notwithstanding the final outcome of the game, the Celtics should be somewhat pleased with the grit and fight they displayed in the latter parts of the second half. The resilient team chipped away — as it’s done so often this year — at the Bucks’ consistent double-digit lead.

At the start of the final quarter, the gap was down to eight points.

Tatum played the entire third quarter and scored 13 of his 21 points during that time. With just over two minutes remaining in the third, he also nabbed a steal from Tony Snell — and may have gotten away with a blatant jersey grab — to prevent a Bucks’ basket and prolong the Celtics’ momentum.

Boston’s determination and fight continued in the fourth quarter. With seven and a half minutes remaining, and the Celtics trailing by four, Eric Bledsoe deflected Horford’s pass to Shane Larkin. Bledsoe presumably would have had an opportunity for a simple layup, but Larkin chased him and the ball down to force a pass.

In addition to hustle plays, like steals and deflections, the Celtics also grabbed 16 offensive rebounds to set up a number of second-chance opportunities.

Officiating continues to plague Marcus Morris.

Morris was issued his sixth technical foul since the last week of the regular season. He and Middleton were both T’d up while jockeying for position on a jump ball in the second quarter. Given Morris’s recent history with the referees, Stevens immediately substituted him with Guerschon Yabusele.

After the game, Morris told reporters he thinks the referees treat him differently than they treat other players.

“Game in and game out, it’s the same thing,” he said. “I’m not doing a lot of chit chat. I’m being physical and watching these other games, and you know, they’re getting warnings. I’m not. It’s just straight [claps]. If it’s me, it’s technical foul.”

Morris was fined $15,000 Saturday for criticizing officials after Game 3.

“When you come to work every day and you put your heart and soul into something and you just feel like it’s a quick whistle, things hike up,” he continued. “I don’t know no other way to play. It’s not like I’m overly talking to the referees, I’m not like making infractions with the referees. It’s a game between men. We go out there and it gets chippy. We bump a little bit, we push, but it’s not over the top.”

Marcus Smart’s return could be even earlier than expected.

Marcus Smart’s return to the court could come as early as Game 6, according to the latest update from the Celtics guard. Smart said he will have an updated timetable after his doctor’s appointment in New York City Tuesday, and if all goes well, he should be cleared to play.

“She needs to see me be able to — just like anything else — have my normal reflexes, be able to put weighted pressure on it, and be able to still have it stabilized and actually move through it,” Smart told NBC Sports Boston’s Abby Chin. “The biggest thing is how much pain I can take when pressure’s on it.”

Prior to tip-off, the 24-year-old was once again out on the court getting shots up. He sat on the bench for the duration of the game and was even spotted offering defensive pointers to Brown during timeouts. Smart said he’s been “antsy” awaiting his return, but believes he’s ready to make a impact despite his extended absence.

“I’ve been feeling pretty good,” he said. “I’ve been doing everything except contact, so catching the ball, shooting the ball, dribbling the ball, and everything feels pretty normal. I feel like Tuesday’s going to be another hurdle I’m going to jump over and get back on the court.”

When he does return, Smart’s thumb will be splitting time between an everyday splint and a game-time splint. The latter just covers the thumb with no additional cast or bandage on the hand.

Smart said it’s comfortable and “feels like there’s nothing there.”

“As a player, especially with my dominant hand, that’s a good feeling to have.”

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