And just like that, the Celtics have ceded home-court advantage back to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Boston’s two most recent showings in its second-round playoff series seem like a far cry from the spectacular Game 1 performance that once buoyed its postseason hopes. Talk of the turbulent regular season, which was briefly pushed aside after the sweep of the Pacers and 1-0 start against the Bucks, has seemingly re-emerged.
Each time the offense goes stagnant, each time the defense lags, each time there’s any semblance of this team’s vexing regular-season identity — you can’t help but wonder whether this underperforming version of the Celtics is all we’re going to get this year.
Down 1-2, they certainly can’t afford to be disengaged moving forward. Up next is a critical Game 4 in which they’ll have to prove they are the talented, resilient group that is capable of contending for a title.
“We got too many players, too many dogs in this locker room,” forward Jaylen Brown said after Friday night’s 123-112 loss. “This is a part of our test. We got all the tools that we need in this room. We just have to play better.”
Here’s what we learned from Game 3:
The Bucks bench outshined that of the Celtics.
Led by local boy Pat Connaughton and veteran George Hill, the Bucks’ bench outscored the Celtics’ bench, 42-16, on Friday.
Connaughton finished with 14 points — 11 of which came in the first half — seven rebounds, two steals, and a block, while Hill finished with 21 points — 15 of which came in the second half — four rebounds and three assists.
Each provided a noticeable scoring spurt at different points in the game: Connaughton tallied eight straight to give the Bucks an early five-point lead during the first quarter, whereas Hill notched nine straight to give them an 11-point lead during the third.
“We try to make sure that we bring the energy,” Connaughton said. “Me and George always talk about the bench mob. We want to make sure we bring the energy every night.”
“As a group, all our guys coming off the bench, we take pride in that,” echoed Hill. “We take pride in going in and trying to change the game.”
The Celtics’ bench, on the other hand, struggled to make a difference, which is certainly a problem for a team that touts its depth.
Forwards Gordon Hayward and Semi Ojeleye were the only reserves to net buckets, as the group combined to shoot 4-for-17 from the field.
Even though he scored 10 points, Hayward’s performance still left a lot to be desired. His only field goals were two three-pointers — one of which came in essentially garbage time — as he seemed to revert back to his November ways of lacking aggression and passing up looks.
It’s well-documented that the Celtics are better when Hayward provides a spark off the bench and shows flashes of his “old self” by driving to the rim, getting to the free-throw line, and knocking down shots from all areas from the floor. Boston was 13-4 in regular-season games when Hayward scored more than 15 points and 25-4 when he shot better than 50 percent from the field.
The Celtics need to find a second gear.
In both Games 2 and 3, the game seemed to get away from the Celtics in the third quarter. After staying within striking distance at the half, Boston couldn’t seem to access that second gear to keep up, let alone pull ahead, when it matters most.
“Every minute of every game against these guys is really hard,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after the loss Friday. “This is a heck of a team.”
In Game 2, the Bucks closed the third quarter on a 24-2 run and earned a comfortable cushion for the fourth. In Game 3, the turning point wasn’t a flurry of third-quarter scoring from the field but rather from the free-throw line. The Bucks reached the free-throw bonus midway through the frame, and Giannis Antetokounmpo proceeded to attempt six free throws over the course of 58 seconds.
“We have to do a better job of not being in the bonus; that’s certainly a big, big deal,” Stevens said. “You want to be solid without fouling, you don’t want to send guys to the line, and, at the same time, you’ve got to provide resistance. It’s easier said than done to balance that when you’re already in the bonus.”
The Bucks still trailed by two after Antetokounmpo’s trio of visits to the line, yet it nevertheless marked the beginning of the end for the Celtics, who clearly seemed peeved by the officiating.
“What are you really going to do?” point guard Kyrie Irving. “It’s slowing the game down, so the run that you would hope to make in a quarter, that doesn’t happen. I mean, [Giannis] shot 22 on the game. It’s getting ridiculous at this point. It’s just slowing the f****** game down.”
Boston made only two field goals in the final six minutes of the quarter, while the Bucks rattled off four three-pointers and earned another four trips to the line. The crowd was clearly displeased with the calls against the Celtics, breaking out into “bull-s***” and “ref, you suck” chants. But the Celtics need to show more poise in moments of adversity — something they’ve struggled with all season.
“We shouldn’t let it affect us as much as it did,” Brown said.
Jaylen Brown continues to be a bright spot.
When Celtics forward Jaylen Brown dunked on Antetokounmpo in Game 2, he said the picture made the moment seem cooler than it actually was.
So, what about dunking on the Greek Freak — twice in as many games?
With the Celtics trailing by one in the third, Brown fielded a pass from teammate Jayson Tatum, pump-faked a three, and drove past a scrambling Nikola Mirotic to slam one home over Antetokounmpo. After the one-handed jam, Brown bumped Mirotic’s left side on his back to the other end of the court.
JB FROM THE RAFTERS ☠️ pic.twitter.com/wNbdXkTU09
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 4, 2019
The posterization was just one of Brown’s highlights from the night. In the second quarter, he jumped up from an emphatic rejection of a driving layup from 6-foot-7 Tony Snell.
Jaylen pins it with his ELBOW 💪 pic.twitter.com/9kyYTIZjBN
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 4, 2019
Brown has been a consistent offensive bright spot for the Celtics this postseason, even in their losses. Over the course of their last three games, he is averaging 17.7 points per game. He has attempted at least 12 shots and eclipsed 15 points in each of Boston’s game against the Bucks.