Every Celtics fan who watched Wednesday’s Game 5 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks likely came away with similar takeaways: Marcus Smart was abysmal in the final minute, Giannis Antetokounmpo resoundingly won the battle with Al Horford this time, and Bobby Portis is one serious pain in the butt.
But the Celtics didn’t lose because of the very visible moments that will be replayed in the highlight segments.
They lost because a series of decisions or a general lack of awareness created situations that never should have existed for those highlight moments to occur.
Here are three under-the-radar factors that contributed to the Celtics’ 110-107 loss, which put them on the brink of elimination in the best-of-seven NBA Eastern Conference playoff series:
Up comfortably, but careless
One of the real, “Oh, no,” moments came after Pat Connaughton hit a 3-pointer to cut the Bucks’ deficit to eight points with 7:38 on the clock. But it wasn’t the shot itself that sparked concern.
That moment came a possession later, when a miscommunication between Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart caused Brown to toss a pass at a strange angle that missed its target and went out of bounds. It was just one turnover, but it was the type of mental error you simply can’t make when you’re leading in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. The emphasis in that situation needed to be on execution and smart possessions.
The Celtics had other brain-cramp moments before that sequence, but in one lackadaisical moment, the Celtics revealed they weren’t in the right frame of mind.
Defensive rotation priorities
With a 14-point lead and less than 10 minutes remaining in the game, the Celtics needed to have one priority on defense: No 3’s. But after Payton Pritchard’s runner with 10:15 left, the Celtics were content to trade baskets, even if Milwaukee’s baskets were better than their baskets. Both of the Bucks’ next two buckets were 3’s, which helped turned a near-insurmountable 14-point Boston edge into a much more manageable 10 points.
A couple lapses like those would be forgivable, if they didn’t continue the rest of the game. But even with two- or three-possession leads later on, when all the Celtics needed to do was protect the arc, they kept helping aggressively on dribble penetration. Antetokounmpo’s triple with 1:40 left, which closed the gap to three points and permanently turned the tide in Milwaukee’s favor, came as a result of an offensive rebound off a missed Portis 3 that was made possible by Tatum inexplicably diving into the paint to help prevent a Jrue Holiday drive.
If Holiday had hit a floater there, who cares? Boston still would have had a four-point edge with 1:47 left; to put it another way, there would have been only 4 1/2 possessions left in the game (107 divided by 24 seconds) to protect a two-possession lead. Just a couple of feet in the wrong direction by Tatum, and the game’s odds swung dramatically.
To make matters worse, on the very next possession the Celtics responded to a Marcus Smart turnover by packing the paint in transition. Brown wasn’t even facing Portis and Holiday outside the arc when Holiday launched the game-tying trey. At that point, the Celtics deserved to lose.
So, so many long 2-pointers
If not for several nearly impossible long jump shots by Tatum and Brown, the Celtics wouldn’t have been in the position to win, to be fair. But 20-foot jumpers are fool’s gold.
Unlike going to the hoop, which gets two points and a higher chance of getting fouled, or taking a 3, which has roughly the same chance of going in with the added bonus of being worth an extra point, contested 2-point jumpers give the defense exactly what it wants.
Tatum’s penchant for long 2’s has been a trait his entire career, but it was exacerbated after Pritchard hit from midrange to give Boston an 11-point lead with 8:15 left. Antetokounmpo lost the ball and immediately gifted the Celtics a foul, and the wheels were in danger of coming off for Milwaukee. Instead of pushing the issue and getting back to the hoop, however, Tatum settled and missed a 20-footer. He nailed his next two long 2’s — good for him — but then missed two more tough jumpers when the Celtics needed a quality look.
In fact, even the highest moment of the fourth quarter for the Celtics came on a poor shot selection. Horford’s raucous putback dunk that blew the lid off TD Garden with two minutes to go? It came off a missed jumper by Brown from behind the free-throw circle.
This is the point where the column is supposed to say, “There’s a lot of series left!” and assure everyone the Celtics can turn it around.
There’s really not much series left, though, if the things above are more than just a one-quarter blip. The series could be over in literally one game. And while it’s one thing to lose a game because of missed shots or misplaced bounces, it’s quite another to lose in a manner that’s entirely your fault.
Game 5 wasn’t a, “Hey, what are you going to? Sometimes things just don’t go your way,” sort of loss. It was an entirely preventable defeat, which the Celtics actively lost. The Bucks just held up their end of the bargain and took advantage.
The series continues — concludes? — with Game 6 on Friday in Milwaukee. When the Celtics are locked in, they’ve proven they can not only beat the NBA’s best, but beat them comfortably. When they’re not, they’ve shown they can be beaten by anyone, let alone the defending champions.