The Boston Celtics needed a spark. Down eight with five minutes to go in Monday’s Game 4, Marcus Morris dribbled into the frontcourt, turned, and shoveled the ball to Kyrie Irving, who’d just rocketed across the timeline ahead of Milwaukee Bucks guard George Hill. The improvised dribble handoff put Hill behind the play, giving Irving plenty of space and time to step into a 3-pointer that could cut the deficit to five and give the crowd at TD Garden a reason to get raucous for the stretch run.
The 3 clanged off the front of the rim, caromed off the backboard, and fell into the waiting hands of Giannis Antetokounmpo. The fans in the stands let loose a plaintive wail. They weren’t boos, really—those would come later—but more a collective cry of something like, “Oh, come on, man.” It was the sound of a fan base that had seen that sort of miss (rushed, off-balance, without any attempt at penetrating) and this sort of late-game performance (somnambulant, dispiriting, just straight up not good enough) before this season, and has grown pretty tired of it. From the looks of things, the Celtics seemed pretty tired of it too.
Nineteen seconds after Irving’s 15th miss of the night, Hill sliced through a generous Celtics defense for a layup that pushed the Bucks’ lead back to 10, and that, for all intents and purposes, was that. Milwaukee ran through the tape in style, as Antetokounmpo saved some of his loudest finishes for last in a 113-101 win that gives the Bucks a vise-grip 3-1 hold on the best-of-seven series and the chance to end the Celtics’ season in Wisconsin on Wednesday.
Nothing about this should be all that surprising. The Bucks announced their arrival with authority in November and never looked back en route to the league’s best record, its best net rating, and the seventh-best point differential of any NBA team in the past decade. They were dominant throughout the regular season. They were dominant in Round 1. And after a disastrous Game 1, they’ve dominated the Celtics as the series has worn on, busting up Boston’s defense for 64, 68, and 66 points in the second halves of the past three games.
Antetokounmpo was arguably the best player in the league this season, on both ends of the floor, and since about halftime of Game 2, he has looked like it. The 24-year-old marvel again manhandled the Celtics on Monday, scoring a game-high 39 points on 15-for-22 shooting to go with 16 rebounds, four assists, a steal, a block, and just two turnovers in only 34 minutes of carnage:
Antetokounmpo’s just the third player in the past 35 postseasons to put up 35 points and 15 rebounds in fewer than 35 minutes of work, joining young Hakeem Olajuwon and prime Shaquille O’Neal. Which, terrifyingly enough, sounds about right. (He even knocked down a couple of pull-up 3s, just to give opposing coaches a fresh round of nightmares.)
Whether serving as the screener or the ball handler, Antetokounmpo pulverized the Celtics in the pick-and-roll, forcing switches and beasting whichever Boston defender picked him up—Irving, Morris, Jayson Tatum, whoever—on his way to a layup or dunk. Milwaukee seemed to get a clean, high-percentage look just about every time it involved Antetokounmpo in the screening action; it felt kind of like watching LeBron James pick out smaller defenders for punishment in postseasons past, and it was just as effective. Even on a night when his teammates struggled to convert—non-Giannis Bucks shot just 37.2 percent from the field, and a frigid 6-for-32 from the 3-point line—all that attacking left Boston battered, bruised, and bereft of answers; asked Monday what’s changed since last spring’s opening-round matchup between these two teams, which Boston won in seven games, All-Star guard Khris Middleton said, “It’s not about them. It’s about us.”
It is a little about them, though.
The Celtics had chances in Game 4. They led for most of the first half, riding the aggression of Morris and Jaylen Brown to an early edge. They were up by two with 6:20 left in the third quarter, when Middleton joined Antetokounmpo on the bench after both had picked up their fourth fouls. With the Bucks’ two best players out of the game, Boston had an opportunity to seize control of the game. Instead, it was the Bucks’ reserves who hit the gas, ripping off a 17-7 run during which they outworked, outhustled, and outperformed a Kyrie-led lineup that could neither hit open shots nor string together stops. With their season ostensibly on the line, the Celtics got run off the floor by George Hill, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown, Ersan Ilyasova, and Brook Lopez; they’d never get closer than five points again.
Maybe that shouldn’t be all that surprising, either. The Celtics ranked among the league’s most inconsistent and maddening underperformers this season. Brief bursts of brilliant performances separated long stretches of languid play. On paper, giving a fiery young roster that made a surprising run to Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals an injection of two All-Star talents—Gordon Hayward, who missed all but five minutes of last season after shattering his left leg, and Irving, who missed the entire 2018 postseason with a knee injury—provided the Celtics the profile of a juggernaut in waiting. In practice, though, nobody seemed happy, and they played that way.
Some of those young players bristled at being bumped back into smaller roles to make room for the reintegration of the starrier vets. Hayward scarcely looked like his pre-injury self until the final few weeks of the season. Irving frequently expressed his discontent over a wide variety of matters, most notably the steady drumbeat of coverage over the expectation that he will decline his $21.3 million player option this summer to enter unrestricted free agency and the possibility that he will trade in kelly green for greener pastures.
As the sour season sloughed its way toward completion, Irving often told reporters how he couldn’t wait for the playoffs, when bullshit speculation would give way to the sort of blast-furnace, adapt-or-die basketball in which his playmaking and shot-creation skills shined brightest during his years in Cleveland. For five games, it all seemed worth the wait, with Irving leading the offense through a sweep of the Victor Oladipo–less Pacers and combining with defensive linchpin Al Horford to stifle the Bucks in Game 1, stealing home-court advantage and inducing no small amount of agita in the greater Milwaukee area. Maybe the Celtics really were a “flip the switch” team, one that had found the right formula to render the regular-season gap between them and teams like the Bucks and Raptors irrelevant. Maybe a plane ride and a common goal really could smooth out six months of static and turn the long-grumpy C’s into a good-vibes gang at precisely the right time.
Or, y’know, maybe not. Horford scored 20 points on 50 percent shooting with six rebounds, five assists, and a block in 38 minutes on Monday, but he hasn’t been able to wrest control of the terms of engagement back from Giannis over the past two games. Whatever rhythm Hayward had been able to build over the season’s final weeks appears to have stalled out. He couldn’t turn the corner on Ersan Ilyasova on Monday night, he’s 4-for-18 over the past three games, and the Celtics have been outscored by 49 points in his 91 minutes of floor time since Game 1.
Three nights after saying he’d left his Game 3 frustrations behind him, calling efficiency the order of the day and proclaiming you wouldn’t see another 8-for-22 night out of him, Irving went 7-for-22 from the field and 1-for-7 from 3-point land. (To his credit, he also dished 10 assists and watched his teammates squander what should’ve been at least a few more.) Irving has shot just 19-for-62 from the field since Game 1—the worst three-game shooting slump of his postseason career—but is not about to let that stop him from trying to rediscover his touch. “For me, the 22 shots? I should have shot 30,” he told reporters after Game 4. “I’m that great of a shooter.”
Meanwhile, Morris is saying the Celtics have been “pretty soft,” and Brad Stevens has little in the way of answers beyond “We all need to play better.” If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably listened to at least a few Celtics postgame pressers this season.
When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. The Bucks are this good, and they are now one win away from their first conference finals in 18 years. The Celtics are this capricious, and they are dying as they lived. Boston is now one loss away from a very long and potentially franchise-defining summer in which they’ll have to answer all those roiling questions about Irving, Anthony Davis, and whether what was shaping up to be a new golden age will wind up amounting to anything more than a disappointing footnote in the story of another franchise’s rise to Eastern prominence. If there is a switch, the Celtics had better find it fast—Giannis is ready to turn their lights out and leave an organization that entered the season with perhaps the league’s brightest future stumbling around in the dark.