BOSTON — A few minutes after he disappeared into a courtside tunnel before the final buzzer had even sounded, Kyrie Irving emerged from the Celtics’ locker room to deliver his second performance of the evening. With his team’s ragged season on life support, he appeared for his postgame news conference and said a bunch of curious stuff.
How would he describe his level of confidence after his team’s 113-101 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series? “Unwavering,” he said.
What about his horrific shooting in three straight losses? “Who cares?” he said. “I’m a basketball player.”
He had been 7 of 22 from the field in Game 4, which was not very good. He was aware of the numbers. “For me, the 22 shots, I should’ve shot 30,” he said. “I’m that great of a shooter.”
And on he went, describing how he was “trying to do it all” for his team in the face of enormous defensive pressure, how Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer was making all the right moves, how “the energy of the basketball” can lead to soft defense when players are shooting poorly.
“That’s just Basketball 101,” Irving said as the Celtics began the uneasy work of digesting a 3-1 series deficit before heading to Milwaukee for Game 5 on Wednesday night.
The loss was not the end for the Celtics — not yet, anyway — but there was the general sense that it may have been Irving’s final home game for them before free agency this summer. After dropping two games in Boston, the Celtics will surely need to unearth something special to rebound against a surging opponent on the road.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) May 7, 2019
“It’s win or go home,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “You do the same thing you’ve been doing all along — you play the next possession to win it, and focus on that. It takes a lot of mental fortitude. It takes a lot of mental toughness, and it reveals a lot. I’m looking forward to that challenge.”
The Bucks are showing why they finished the regular season with the league’s best record. On Monday, Giannis Antetokounmpo was brilliant again, finishing with 39 points and 16 rebounds while shooting 15 of 22 from the field. But Milwaukee actually managed to extend its lead in the third quarter when Antetokounmpo was on the bench because of foul trouble.
“That was killer,” Stevens said.
The Bucks are cohesive and connected and confident, and it is difficult to find evidence the Celtics are any of those things right now. After a tumultuous season, Boston was banking on improved play in time for the playoffs, as if the team could flip the mythical playoff switch. But it does not work that way in the NBA, not for teams that accumulate so many bad habits and build so little chemistry.
The Celtics entered the season with big goals after making a deep playoff run a year ago — a run they were able to make without Irving, who was sidelined after undergoing knee surgery. In his return this season, he has been things: productive and enthralling, but also mystifying and defiant. After the Celtics got off to a slow start, he backed off an earlier pledge to re-sign with the team this summer. Questions about his future have worn at the franchise.
Irving, of course, is an amazing player, and he was amazing in the first game of this series, finishing with 26 points and 11 assists in a lopsided win. But in the three games since, he has shot 19 of 62 from the field and 4 of 20 from 3-point range. At the same time, there has been a first-person vibe to his approach. On Monday, he attempted nine shots in the first quarter, making three of them.
“Shots just didn’t go in,” he said, adding: “Sometimes they’re going to go in, sometimes they’re not.”
Irving also praised Budenholzer for the way the Bucks were defending him, sending two, three and even four players at him at times. Irving could not say enough nice things about Budenholzer.
“It’s a little different when your rhythm is challenged every play down — you’re being picked up full court,” Irving said. “They’re doing things to test you, and the expectations on me are going to be sky high. And I try to utilize their aggression against them and put my teammates in great positions while still being aggressive. I’m trying to do it all.”
Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, is pretty nearly doing it all. For the series, he is averaging 30.5 points and 11.5 rebounds while shooting 52.1 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from 3-point range. Irving is averaging 21.8 points and 7.8 assists while shooting 37.3 percent from the field and 24 percent from 3-point range.
Giannis is just unfair 😳pic.twitter.com/pQgvYzyH2Y
— SB Nation (@SBNation) May 7, 2019
One thing to remember: Irving has overcome long odds in the playoffs once before. In 2016, he teamed up with LeBron James to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers all the way back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals. Irving sealed Cleveland’s first and only championship with a late 3-pointer in Game 7.
After Monday’s loss, he was asked if he could help his younger teammates by drawing on that comeback. The short answer? No.
“It’s hard to make any comparisons,” he said, adding: “I think that the difference is just the experience.”
Irving’s interactions with the general public should come with a decoder ring, but his point (probably) was that he had lived it — and sometimes that is the only way to learn.
If nothing else, the Celtics are getting their share of lessons now.