By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Celtics did not have a good night in Milwaukee. It wasn’t as terrible of a night as their recent losses to the lowly Wizards, Spurs and Pistons, but it still wasn’t a great evening.
Boston suffered its fifth loss in the last seven games with a 128-123 defeat in Wisconsin, a disappointing stretch from a team that has exceeded expectations so far this season. The Bucks are the best team in the NBA right now, and at the moment, the Celtics are nowhere near their class. Not many teams are, but Thursday night’s loss was a good dose of reality for an otherwise overachieving team.
The Celtics dug themselves a gigantic hole from the jump, unable to do anything against a team that couldn’t miss. Boston’s defense wasn’t terrible in the first quarter, but nothing they did could slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo and company, as they hit 11 of their first 12 three-pointers. The Celtics, meanwhile, were ice cold from downtown, missing 10 of their first 11 attempts from deep.
Before the Celtics could shake off the daze of Milwaukee throwing the first punch, they were down by 27 points midway through the second quarter. Boston trailed by 18 at halftime, giving up an eye-popping 76 points in the first half — the highest they’ve allowed all season. The Celtics went on a run when the Bucks took their foot off the gas on defense, whittling the lead down to six midway through the third, but Milwaukee answered with a 19-3 run, one again putting Boston on the ropes.
Against a team with the best player on the planet, that can’t happen. Antetokounmpo was his usual other worldy self with 32 points, 17 rebounds and 7 assists, and he has a great supporting cast this year to boot. Khris Middleton was the perfect sidekick with 23 points, while George Hill (13 points) and rookie Donte DiVincenzo (19 points) provided plenty of punch off the bench.
That doesn’t mean the Celtics didn’t battle throughout, their signature play under Brad Stevens. They made another late charge in the final minutes of the game, and were down by just six points with the ball with 51 seconds to play. They trailed by just four with 31 seconds on the clock. Despite those giant deficits in both halves, the Celtics never really quit.
Kemba Walker was held scoreless for the first 14 minutes of the game, but erupted for 40 points over the final 34. Marcus Smart had 24 points, and Jayson Tatum’s 17 points and 7 rebounds look good on paper. But the Celtics needed more with Jaylen Brown out with a thumb injury, and they didn’t get it. Gordon Hayward had just 7 points off 1-for-10 shooting, with the bench contributing just 23 points.
The offense was stuck in the mud for the majority of Thursday night’s game, and the ball movement was stagnant. The Celtics are at their best when the ball is skipping around the floor, setting up open looks everywhere. But the C’s finished with just 16 assists on their 43 makes. They are just 1-6 this season in games where they have fewer than 20 assists. They dished out 25 assists on 41 makes in their win over the Bucks in Boston on Oct. 30.
This recent stretch shouldn’t create a doom and gloom feel around the Celtics, but it does make things trickier in a crowded Eastern Conference. The C’s are battling with the Heat, Raptors, Pacers and 76ers for the No. 2 seed in the East, a spot that could very well be the difference between a trip to the East final and another second-round exit. And though the Celtics are, for the most part, beating the teams they should, they haven’t had a “signature” win as of late. They do have victories over the Raptors, Heat, Pacers and Bucks, but their resume lacks a quality win since their Christmas Day victory over the Raptors in Toronto. The C’s are 0-3 against playoff teams since that victory.
The Celtics are clearly in a little midseason slump. Injuries have not helped their cause, so there is reason to believe that they will eventually break out of it. But it’s also clear that they have a lot of work to do if they want to compete against the likes of the Bucks and the 76ers.