By the latter part of the fourth quarter of last night’s home game against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics had all but disbanded on the court. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo was rampaging to the rim on virtually every possession; the Celtics had given up on helping each other defensively, leaving Giannis’s lone defender, whoever it happened to be at a given time, to hack at him helplessly and to no avail. Meanwhile Kyrie Irving was practically punting the ball back to the Bucks when the Celtics had it, flailing his way into endless bricks in another weird meta-basketball performance of Going Down Guns A-Blazing. They looked miserable, and ready for summer vacation.
What mortally wounded their spirits, I think, came earlier in the game—the third quarter, to be precise. Giannis sat out the final 8:18 of that quarter with foul trouble, a flatly insane length of time for a team to go without its star in the second half of a road playoff game. For over four bonkers minutes of that time, from when the third-quarter game clock read 4:38 to when it hit the 30-second mark, Milwaukee ran with the deeply ludicrous quintet of George Hill, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown, Ersan Ilyasova, and Brook Lopez—generously, the team’s fifth- through ninth-best players. During those four minutes, by all rights, the Celtics should have pounded the Bucks into the hardwood; instead, the Bucks outscored them 14-5 over that stretch and opened up a nine-point lead they’d never fully relinquish.
How did they do it? You can chalk part of it up to the particular fog of janky, stagnant basketball that has bedeviled these accursed Celtics all season, and which settled over them like a stinky caul for much of that definitive quarter. The ball begins languishing on one side of the floor or at the top of the key; super-athletes like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown start hucking up half-open long-range jumpers at what should be the beginning, rather than the end, of sequences of passes and cuts; Gordon Hayward takes his warmups off; Kyrie starts treating degree-of-difficulty as if he believes it acts as an exponent on the point-value of his shot attempts; they settle for a passive pick-and-pop for Al Horford, mistaking the aggregate long-term strategic value of his ability to make those shots 36 percent of the time for their immediate need for a shot with a greater than 36-percent chance of going in. The third quarter was going that way. Brad Stevens had called a timeout to try to avert it, but all he’d gotten out of the ensuing possession was a bricked Horford 26-footer with 11 seconds left on the shot clock; only lil’ Terry Rozier, the smallest dude on the floor, was in position to try for an offensive rebound.
But also and more importantly, the Bucks’ Suicide Squad defended their fucking asses off! Here’s their next possession after that Horford brick:
This isn’t exactly a work of art by the Celtics, but it’s hardly bad offense either. A deadly little first-step move gets Irving past Hill and into the guts of the defense with 14 seconds left on the shot-clock. That’s ideal. A second later, all five Milwaukee defenders have converged on him; he can make a pass for an open shot to literally any of his four teammates.
Look at this shit:
He chooses Rozier, on the right wing. It’s probably the least-good of the four options, but Rozier’s reasonably open, and Marcus Smart, one pass away in the corner, looks completely unguarded. But go back and hit play on the video and watch the Bucks play defense, man. Connaughton is recovering back out to Rozier by the time the pass leaves Kyrie’s hand, and Hill, fucking George Hill, man, this absolute hero, sees the extra pass coming and loops straight through the lane to close out on Smart—Ilyasova’s man—out in the corner. A shot-fake and a hard dribble get Smart into Hill’s chest and driving toward the center of the floor; Connaughton helps down, ready to swipe at the ball; Smart passes to the top of the key, where a wide-open Rozier rotated when Connaughton turned his back ... and Connaughton flies back out there like a damn psycho, selling out not just to contest the shot but to fucking block it. This is great damn defense!
They kept it up. Kyrie went one-on-two and committed a dumb travel on Boston’s next possession, and Hill, who was spectacular all through the second half, banked in a tough runner over him to push Milwaukee’s lead to an inconceivable 10 points. With just over a minute left in the third and the game getting away from them with Milwaukee’s world-destroying seven-foot MVP candidate relaxing on the bench, the Celtics needed a good possession more than ever; they needed a good shot and they desperately needed it to go in. They got ... neither!
This is fucking spectacular defense!!!!!
Tatum tries to turn the corner on Connaughton, but Lopez is waiting for him in the middle of the lane. By the time he kicks the ball to Horford on the wing, Lopez is loping back out there to run him off the three-point line. Horford puts the ball on the floor and gets past Lopez ... but Connaughton is waiting for him in the middle of the lane. By the time he kicks the ball to Tatum on the wing, Sterling Brown has peeled off Jaylen Brown in the corner to meet the ball when it gets to Tatum. Tatum thinks about making the extra pass to Jaylen Brown in the corner ... but Connaughton has already given Horford back to Lopez and is flying out there to pick up Jaylen Brown. Tatum takes a dribble toward the middle and spots Smart, all alone in the far corner ... but by the time the ball leaves his hand, Ilyasova is already fucking sprinting toward the corner to contest Smart’s three-point look.
You can see Smart’s thought process: He thinks he’ll shot-fake Ilyasova into outer space, take a gather dribble to his right, and pump up an uncontested corner three. But check out frickin’ Ersan frickin’ Ilyasova! He contests without leaving his feet, and instead of flying by glues himself to Smart’s left shoulder, funneling Smart toward the baseline... where frickin’ Sterling Brown is already waiting for him, having left Tatum in no-man’s land near the top of the key, where Smart can’t see him. Smart tries to whip a desperate bounce-pass to Jaylen Brown in the corner, but Connaughton is waiting for it and practically takes it out of his hands for a steal.
The Celtics did just about everything right on this possession. They moved the ball and themselves, used the whole width of the floor, and made quick and good decisions. And there’s just nothing there—they couldn’t even get a shot up, much less a good one—because the Bucks’s scrubs are playing breathtakingly selfless, committed, focused, organized defense, zipping around and passing assignments off to each other like they’re working with a hive mind. The closest thing to a good look the Celtics got was a momentary window for Smart, their worst shooter, with a bigger and longer defender flying into his face.
Antetokounmpo re-entered the game at the start of the fourth quarter. That he’d left a tied game, sat for more than eight goddamn minutes during which most of Boston’s best players remained on the floor, and checked back in with an eight-point lead could very well go down as the signal triumph of Milwaukee’s playoff run, as well as the defining failure of the 2018-19 Boston Celtics. And when it turned out that the Bucks were gonna keep right on playing this kind of defense in the fourth ...
... Boston pretty much packed it in. I can’t say I blame them. The series isn’t over quite yet; the Celtics just wish it was, thanks in large part to the five weirdos who kicked their asses while the league MVP sat and watched.