The Celtics are left with a couple bad omens from Game 4, which ended Monday night with Boston fans booing their team off the court at the end of a pivotal 113–101 loss. Apart, that is, from the fact that the Bucks are now in a commanding 3–1 series lead, with Game 5 back in Milwaukee, where the Bucks lost just eight times in the regular season.
For one, the Celtics were down a point, 59–58, at the 8:18 mark of the third period, when Giannis Antetokounmpo picked up his fourth foul of the game, on a drive by Boston’s Marcus Morris. To that point the game had been a choppy mess, but generally the Celtics seemed to be a hair sharper on both ends, and were operating with home court advantage. Putting Giannis in foul trouble early in the second half is the kind of thing Brad Stevens wouldn’t even dare to dream of, and should’ve given the Celtics an enormous leg up for huge chunks of the second half.
Mike Budenholzer pulled Giannis from the game with the score tied following Morris’s first free throw. Over the next five-ish minutes, all of which featured Kyrie Irving on the floor and Giannis off, the Celtics scored just eight total points, and could never push further than three points ahead of the Bucks on the scoreboard. Boston’s offense has struggled all series against Milwaukee’s defense, but this stretch represented Boston’s best chance of stringing together stops and turning stops into transition opportunities and just generally enforcing their will against a team suddenly lacking its unstoppable all-world point-monster. The Celtics team that came into this season with serious championship aspirations should have no trouble ripping off a run against a lineup featuring Sterling Brown and Pat Connaughton and George Hill, and only Khris Middleton to anchor the offense.
Instead, starting at the 3:25 mark of the quarter, the Bucks ripped off a 10–0 run, all with Giannis on the bench, and with Hill doing most of the playmaking. Hill beat Terry Rozier to the cup with a gorgeous spin to give the Bucks the lead, and then a minute later dribbled into a transition three to put the Bucks up four. Brown drove Gordon Hayward into the paint and dropped in a tough floater to put the Bucks up six, and then Connaughton blocked a Terry Rozier three-point attempt and sailed in for a breakaway dunk to extend the lead to eight. Hill capped the run with a tough floater over Kyrie and Jaylen Brown. Jayson Tatum eventually stopped the bleeding with a driving layup, but by then Milwaukee had all the momentum, and went into the fourth quarter with an eight-point lead, without having played Giannis for even a second of the last eight minutes of the third.
The Celtics seemed genuinely flustered and demoralized by that stretch, and spent the fourth quarter seeming to disband and check out. The Celtics put up 29 in the final frame but never again seriously threatened the Bucks, who extended their lead out to as many as 15 points before it was all over. Giannis, invigorated by the lead and apparently smelling blood in the water, spent the quarter trashing Boston’s defense and recording 17 of his game-high 39 points:
And then there’s this: Marcus Smart returned Monday night, which is a genuine lift for the Celtics. He’s by far their best perimeter defender, and is probably the Celtic who is most qualified to guard Khris Middleton, because he can hang with him on the perimeter and also body him up on the block. But for all that he does defensively, Smart isn’t especially suited to fixing what has ailed Boston in this series, which is their plodding, lifeless offense. Smart went 1-for-7 from the field, with all seven of his attempts coming from beyond the arc, and finished a dispiriting minus-13 in less than 15 minutes of run.
Boston is too sharp a team to declare dead before they’ve been officially eliminated, but they’ve now lost consecutive games at home in the series, and appear to be no closer to breaking out against Milwaukee’s defense. Turning things around will be a very tall order, but at least Kyrie has identified a place to start: