Celtics

Game 1 against the Bucks was ugly, but the Celtics can remedy things

Jim Davis/Globe Staff
Jaylen Brown (12 points on 4-of-13 shooting) was off his game in the opener against the Bucks.


Hey, at least that wasn’t the worst-case scenario, Celtics fans.

The Celtics didn’t have twice as many turnovers as 2-point baskets, but instead a slightly less lousy 18-10 ratio there. Bucks sniveling menace Grayson Allen resisted going a multi-quarter tripping spree. Oh, and no visiting Milwaukee player stomped on the Celtics logo, Kyrie-style, at least as far as we could tell.

So there. See, it could have been worse.

All right, so maybe not much worse. The Bucks may not have walked on the logo deliberately, but they did walk all over the Celtics in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series Sunday, prevailing, 101-89, in a game that was not as close as the final margin.

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The Celtics, coming off an emboldening sweep of the spiritless Nets in the first round that had visions of an 18th banner dancing in our heads, looked good for about half a quarter, taking a 22-14 lead on a Grant Williams 3-pointer with a little more than three minutes left in the first quarter.

But the Bucks seized the lead, 25-24, by ending the first quarter on an 8-0 run, took a 10-point lead (56-46) into halftime, and refused to allow the Celtics to make any kind of meaningful run in the second half.

Even when Giannis Antetokounmpo (a disciplined 24 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists) sat down with his fourth foul with 3:37 left in the third and the Bucks up, 72-66, the visitors extended their lead before the end of the quarter.

The de facto better-start-thinking-about-Game 2 dagger came when the chronically underrated Jrue Holiday hit a three to put the Bucks up, 92-75 with 7:36 to play. If the Celtics needed a reminder that the Bucks are the defending NBA champions with no plans to vacate the throne willingly, they got a harsh one in the form of their first double-digit loss since a 128-107 takedown by the Pacers Feb. 27.

The Celtics were the best defensive team in the NBA this season. The Bucks were the best defensive team on the court Sunday. They dogged Jayson Tatum (who finished with 21 points on 6-of-18 shooting and didn’t make a field goal until just under seven minutes remained in the first half) across every inch of the parquet. They contested every shot at the rim, essentially forcing the Celtics to play a 3-pointer-or-bust offense that they were all too willing to accept.

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The Celtics finished 28 of 84 from the field, including 18 of 50 from three. The 28 field goals were a season low. The 10 2-pointers were a franchise low. That’s right, as in their entire history.

Some of the Celtics’ problems can be remedied. They aided the Bucks’ fierce defensive efforts by being careless with the ball (18 turnovers) and missing too many open shots. Payton Pritchard, to name one example, was 2 of 8 from the field — all 3-pointers. He missed his last six, and there were some good looks mixed in.

And there’s no way around it: Jaylen Brown (12 points on 4-of-13 shooting) was abysmal. He settled for questionable threes, was careless with the ball off the dribble and when looking to pass (7 turnovers), and fell into his tunnel-vision habits (which he’s never truly remedied, if we’re being frank) when he did try to attack. For such a fine player, too often he can look like the villainous “Space Jam” Monstars stole his instincts, if not his ability. He played like a one-man tribute to 2011 Mickael Pietrus.

Perhaps Brown’s hamstring is bothering him more than the Celtics let on, but that has nothing to do with his poor decision-making. The Bucks are playing without their second-best offensive player, Khris Middleton. In effect, the Celtics were without Brown Sunday, at least in anything close to decent form. He has to be exponentially better in Game 2, and he should be.

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As frustrating as the last 3½ quarters of Game 1 were, and as much of a drag as it is to lose home-court immediately, it’s not necessarily terrible that the Celtics got a dose of their own medicine — meaning the suffocating defense in particular — early in this series.

The Celtics’ championship aspirations became very real after the sweep of the Nets, and despite Sunday’s outcome, they still are. But the Bucks hit them with a hard lesson. They are the defending champions, they’ve been through this postseason grind, and they know what it takes. They are a smart, tested team that features the best player in the universe and a supporting cast of players who know their roles and execute them well.

The Bucks believe they are the better team in this series, and they have a year-old banner to back up such a belief. That doesn’t mean they will be, but all of us — the Celtics players more so than anyone — had better realize that this is going to be a grind for every minute of every game.

The physicality of Game 1 was reminiscent somewhat of an ‘80s Celtics-Sixers series. It also was a reminder that even the best teams face punishing challenges along the way; the ‘08 Celtics, you’ll recall, had to win two seven-game series before beating the Lakers in six in the Finals. Banners fly forever in the Garden rafters because they are so difficult to put up there.

Ime Udoka and the Celtics coaches and players are well aware of what needs to happen in Game 2. Tatum needs to find a way to get comfortable shots. Brown cannot play so disjointedly. The supporting players need to make open looks. And they must match, if not exceed, the Bucks’ defensive intensity, which means Marcus Smart’s knee had better be OK.

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It’s a lot to ask, but it is absolutely not too much. What happened in Game 1 was ugly, but it can be remedied, and we do know these Celtics are resilient.

That was not the worst-case scenario Sunday. The worst-case scenario is if a debacle like it happens again.

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