By Tom Westerholm
You could see the offensive rebound coming, if you looked close enough.
The Celtics spent most of the fourth quarter playing not to lose after building a 14-point lead with plenty of time remaining. The Bucks were trying to rally. That was the first sign of a problem.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had already made a 3-pointer, and the Celtics were willing to let him shoot. That was a second.
But the brightest blinking sign, of course, was the offensive rebounds. The Bucks finished Game 5 with 17, and the big one was pulled down by Bobby Portis, who happened to be in the right place at the right time when Giannis Antetokounmpo missed a crucial free throw. Portis grabbed a loose ball, tipped by Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, and put it back up and in to give the Bucks a one-point lead. The shell-shocked Celtics couldn’t score again, and Smart was stripped trying to advance the ball in the final seconds. The Bucks took a 3-2 series lead with a stunning 110-107 win.
“It was tough, tough away to lose,” Jayson Tatum said.
Antetokounmpo finished with a huge line — 40 points on 16-for-27 shooting — and he and the Bucks ripped home-court advantage away from the Celtics again. The Celtics spent the second half of the season blowing teams out, but the Bucks are different — a battle-tested group that won’t beat themselves. The Celtics learned a tough lesson about finishing the job on Wednesday.
After outplaying the Bucks for three-and-a-half quarters, the Celtics now need to beat them at home to force a Game 7 thanks to a series of mistakes in the fourth.
On a basketball court, mistakes don’t get much more costly.
“We talked about showing our resolve and we made it tougher on ourselves now,” Udoka said. “It’ll make it sweeter when we bounce back, but we gave up a golden opportunity tonight.”
2. Something odd happened on this play.
WHAT A BLOCK BY JRUE HOLIDAY.AND HE EARNS THE POSSESSION 🤯6.6 left on TNT pic.twitter.com/zombWL9ipA
According to Udoka, the play was drawn up for Tatum to get the ball after an Al Horford pin-down. According to Smart, nobody moved for too long, so he gave Derrick White an outlet. When asked if something else was supposed to happen, Tatum chuckled ruefully and just answered “Yeah.”
So what happened?
A closer look at the play might show it: Al Horford waited too long and may not have realized crucial seconds were ticking away. When the official handed White the ball, Horford stayed put for entirely too long. Marcus Smart gestured across the court, then tried to make a play, but Holiday’s heroics saved the Bucks (Smart almost certainly was about to score).
Smart is getting a lot of flack for this play. HOWEVER:Apparently, this was supposed to be a Horford pindown for Tatum, and then the Celtics were going to “bring a specific matchup into it to get the matchup we wanted downhill with JT,” per Udoka. pic.twitter.com/OERvrB6gxe
Smart confirmed after the game that he didn’t see Holiday closing in.
“Everybody was just standing around and we had no timeouts, and there was a five-second count on the way, so I just got open and tried to make a play,” Smart said. “Jrue did a good job of helping. That’s it. Made a good play.”
3. The Bucks pushed the ball up the court even more aggressively than usual and caught the Celtics napping after several made baskets, much to the consternation of Ime Udoka. Antetokounmpo is, of course, a one-man fast break essentially whenever he decides to be, but the Bucks clearly made it a point to try to beat the Celtics up the floor whenever they could. One wonders if Mike Budenholzer saw the Celtics pining for calls and saw an opportunity to take advantage.
4. Derrick White had a nice evening, particularly in the first half as the Celtics tried to hold serve against the Bucks’ early onslaught of 3-pointers. He’s spotting up from three less and getting to the rim more (and as a result, his 3-pointers look more comfortable).
Entering Wednesday’s game, lineups with White, Brown, and Tatum had outscored opponents by a staggering 35.9 points per 100 possessions in the postseason (up from a nearly equally impressive 20.2 points per 100 possessions last year). If the Celtics find a way to advance, and if Robert Williams’ knee soreness persists deeper into the postseason, it might be worth giving White a look with the starters.
5. After losses, a defeated squad can often point to things it did wrong which it will correct the next game. The Celtics don’t have that luxury after Wednesday’s loss. They did everything right. They just didn’t do everything for long enough.
Tatum repeated himself four times in the span of two questions: The Celtics need to move on to Game 6.
“We got a game Friday night,” Tatum said. “You can make it bigger than that, but it’s as simple as we have a game Friday night. Throughout the season, you try to win every game you play and Friday night is not going to be any different.
“Tonight was tough. There’s no way around it, it was a tough loss. But how you respond, how you bounce back, for sure we are going to be ready on Friday.”
6. There were several huge plays that felt like momentum changers, but the biggest one was Al Horford’s put-back dunk which will now be forgotten, no matter what happens the rest of the way.
AL HORFORD FLIES IN FOR THE PUTBACK 🤯2 MINUTES LEFT. GET TO TNT. pic.twitter.com/StYtWu7cC1
The Celtics will need to create some new iconic moments if they want to advance. The ones in Game 5 will now be a distant memory.
In case you missed it, the Celtics have a game on Friday. It’s in Milwaukee, and the start time is yet to be announced.
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