- The Boston Celtics are down 3-1 to the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs, on the verge of elimination.
- The Celtics have not been able to “flip the switch” in the playoffs, as they suggested through most of their confusing and disappointing regular season.
- While Kyrie Irving hasn’t lived up to his billing as a star who could carry them in the playoffs, his supporting cast hasn’t come through either, and a team that was once considered to have the brightest future in the league has an uncertain path going forward.
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After falling to the Milwaukee Bucks, 113-101, in Game 4 on Monday, the Boston Celtics are now 3-1 and proving that they haven’t been able to “flip the switch” in the playoffs.
Expectations for these Celtics were sky high this season after their injury-depleted team took LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Most assumed that welcoming back two stars in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, along with the growth from their young players, would take them to the next level.
Instead, the team struggled all season with chemistry and consistency. It seemed as if there were too many mouths to feed, and several portions of the season were marred by infighting.
While there was never a crisis or breaking point – the team still won 49 games – they kept talking about the playoffs, claiming the bigger stage would help them coalesce.
“I can’t wait for all this other BS about regular season and keep getting better, and talking over and over and over and again about what we can do to keep getting better in the regular season,” Irving told reporters in February. “I just want to be at the highest level playing. I mean, that’s what I’m here for.”
Irving could be forgiven for looking ahead. He helped lead the Celtics to the best record in the East last year after Hayward went down on opening night and then got injured shortly before the playoffs, missing the entire postseason run.
But the second round of the playoffs – in which the Celtics are not just being outplayed by a better Bucks team, but failing on their terms, too – is suggesting that the Celtics never had another gear to use.
Kyrie Irving hasn’t lived up to the billing
Irving will take the brunt of the blame. Against the Bucks, Irving is averaging 21 points per game on just 37% shooting and 24% from three. Since the Celtics’ surprising Game 1 in Milwaukee, Irving has shot only 30% from the field in three straight losses.
After going 8-of-22 in the Celtics’ Game 3 loss, Irving vowed it wouldn’t happen again. Instead, in Game 4, he shot 7-of-22 for 23 points.
After the game, Irving said the Bucks were doing things on defence to make him uncomfortable, but he accepted the expectations that come with being a star, noting sometimes you just miss shots.
“For me, the 22 shots? I should have shot 30. I’m that great of a shooter,” he said.
As the Bucks pulled ahead in the fourth quarter, led by a driven Giannis Antetokounmpo, Irving and the Celtics played loose and sloppy. Irving’s shot wouldn’t fall throughout the night, but home run attempts amid mini-runs to close the gap didn’t help.
Nor did lackadaisical defence, like losing George Hill in transition, then committing a bad foul on Antetokounmpo for a three-point play:
After the game, as the final buzzer sounded, Irving walked well ahead of his teammates and into the locker room, a visual that didn’t help matters.
Other Celtics haven’t stepped up
Of course, Irving isn’t solely to blame. The Celtics shot 9-of-41 from three-point range in Game 4 (22%) and are shooting only 40% from the field and 32% from three in the three losses.
Again, perhaps prior performances portended this. The Celtics swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round but did it mostly with defence. In the first round, they posted a 103.7 offensive rating, eight points worse than their regular season figure and a mark that would have ranked last in the league in the regular season.
Those offensive struggles have carried over into the Bucks series. Hayward, who appeared to be making strides late in the season as he continues to come back from his gruesome ankle injury, has shot just 34% against the Bucks. Jayson Tatum, who shined as a rookie and looked poised to become a star, has shot only 37% and has been invisible for stretches. Terry Rozier, the spark-plug guard who broke out in last year’s playoffs while replacing Irving, has shot 26% in the second round, continuing a rough season on the brink of free agency.
The most intriguing part of the Celtics coming into the year was their depth. It hasn’t helped on the big stage.
Even Celtics fans seemed to have turned on the team after 90 rocky games this season.
The boos coming down, fans leaving early. This could be the last time Boston sees this Celtics team and nobody seems too upset about that.
— Jay King (@ByJayKing) May 7, 2019
An uncertain future
The series isn’t over, but the Celtics are on the brink of disaster. A team some thought could win 60-plus games and challenge the Warriors could be out in five games in the second round. They face the daunting task of trying to keep their season alive by winning three games in a row vs. a Bucks team that hasn’t lost three games in a row all season.
What happens next if they lose? Irving, likely to become an unrestricted free agent, could hit the market and leave the Celtics. Al Horford, the team’s rock, has a $US30 million player option to weigh. If he declines it, he, too, can become a free agent.
The Celtics were considered the favourites to land Anthony Davis in a trade this offseason. How attractive are their assets now? The Celtics could have as many as four first-round picks this year (depending on how the lottery shakes out). Tatum and Jaylen Brown remain intriguing pieces, but the playoff run has not helped their stock, especially Tatum, who was once considered the key to getting Davis.
If the Celtics manage to land Davis before Irving’s decision is made, perhaps it would change his calculation. But if the Celtics believe Irving is gone, how wise would it be to trade multiples picks and their two best young players to land Davis, who can become a free agent in 2020?
The Celtics’ future was once considered the brightest in the league. There is still an easy path to a rebound – re-sign Irving, stay committed to the young core, and use some of their draft assets to improve, either with good picks or through trades.
But the playoffs haven’t proven to be the easy fix-all the Celtics claimed it might be. They have only further shown that the cracks seen in the regular season were real.
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