MILWAUKEE – One man’s trash, another man’s treasure. This guy’s ceiling, that guy’s floor. One team’s giddy success, the other team’s dismal failure.
When a playoff series ends as swiftly and decisively as the Milwaukee Bucks’ ouster of the Boston Celtics from the Eastern Conference semifinals, there’s a rush to assign credit and blame. And yes, it’s a zero sum game.
So there is going to be math on this test. How much of what transpired in the Bucks’ 4-1 series victory in the best-of-seven series was a testament to their performance and overall season, which will continue next week against either Toronto or Philadelphia? How much was it about the Celtics shrinking in the moment, snuffing a largely unsatisfying year with the most bitter aftertaste possible?
Is 51/49 a copout as an assessment of liability? That’s the breakdown that springs to mind, at least this mind, with the Bucks getting the extra couple points as a nod to the positives of winning. There was much to praise, and nearly as much to bury.
Let’s start with the disappointing yin and get to the effervescent yang later.
Boston brought so much baggage into this season, it’s hard to send the Celtics off into summer without dwelling on the gaps between what was supposed to be and what was.
No, they didn’t make good as the team most likely to replace Cleveland atop the East and as the conference’s Finals rep. No, the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward – max-contract players missing from the postseason festivities last spring – didn’t make a difference. Unless the difference was downward.
Boston went from Game 7 in the conference finals last spring to just five in the semifinals this time.
The Celtics showcased a somnambulant regular season as if they were a veteran contender pacing themselves until the money games began. Except that, that’s not what they were. They were a young team, a team that underwent significant changes to its lineup and rotation, a team that needed each and every one of those 82 lab sessions to develop chemistry and assorted intangibles.
It didn’t help that speculation about New Orleans star Anthony Davis’ eventual whereabouts got stirred into a pot of Boston rumors with its own players’ futures. Point guard Kyrie Irving, in particular, might have played his last game in a Celtics uniform, finally arriving at the great uncertainty that hung his entire season.
After another dreadful shooting performance Wednesday at Fiserv Forum – 6-for-21, boosting Irving to 25-of-84 in Boston’s four consecutive defeats – Irving was as distant and glum as if he’d just learned his contract option was the Celtics’, not his.
“You take your lessons and the ass-whooping they handed us and you move on,” Irving said. “For the rest of my career, I’ll never forget something like this. The taste of feeling defeat and this type of style, I haven’t felt [losing in five games]. For me, it’s just moving on to the next thing and seeing where it ends up.”
Ya think? Irving has had one foot in, one foot out the door all season. That not only stymies the hopes of President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge, who, by all accounts, wishes to team Irving with Davis, but it also dragged a cloud over what they all might have accomplished in the here and now. Even bigger than the one Irving generated in this year’s Bucks series by playing in it.
For me, it’s just moving on to the next thing and seeing where it ends up."
“There’s no question,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said when asked if the distractions did, in fact, distract his players. “They have TVs, they have phones. They hear everything. When you live in it, you do your best to kind of black out the noise and focus on what you can control. But these guys are also young men. There’s a lot of pressure to live up to all these expectations.”
Stevens vowed his team will learn from all the issues with which it struggled, such as taking 93 shots to score 91 points (the Celtics shot 29 of 93, missing 32 of their 39 from the arc). And repeatedly getting shredded by not just the big names in Milwaukee’s starting lineup, but also by the role players off its bench. Reserves such as George Hill, Pat Connaughton and Ersan Ilyasova contributed so admirably in the series, coach Mike Budenholzer had some trouble finding guys who qualified for the garbage minutes.
Whereas Boston’s offseason began immediately, Milwaukee’s impressive postseason rolls on. The Celtics were co-conspirators in their demise, but Milwaukee’s defense and depth exploited every flaw in and failing of its foe.
Irving groused that the Bucks constantly made body contact to mess with his game. Stevens lauded – and sounded very covetous of – their habits that “showed up over and over again.” Said the Celtics’ coach: “We make a teaching tape every year for our teams about different things – close-outs, recovering, flying around – and the Bucks are going to be on a lot of clips.”
Stevens, a darling among some in the NBA media who has dodged criticism in the opinion of others, didn’t let himself off the hook for the belated sweep. In addition to stating that the Bucks are better than his team, Stevens added: "I did a bad job. As a coach, if your team doesn’t find your best fit together, that’s on you.”
By the end of 240 minutes spread across 10 days, the critical difference between the two teams was this: Boston has a talented roster, while Milwaukee has a team. There’s a pecking order, a togetherness, a selflessness, all the things that showed themselves only for as long as the first-round series against Indiana and Game 1 against the Bucks lasted. The habits to which the Celtics reverted from Game 2 and beyond were at the far end of the scale from Milwaukee’s.
Budenholzer spoke at length before tipoff about his team’s personality. It’s easy for teams that win to have great chemistry, but it’s special when the bonds within a team generate the success.
“The chemistry that this group has has been cooking in the oven since the summer,” Budenholzer said. “Getting together for non-mandatory type workouts, different places working with coaches, working together through the month of September and open-gym environments and preseason. So if you put it in that context, all of that was happening before there was a single win.”
Unlike Boston, too, Milwaukee was deadly serious about the regular season. Its most notable achievement – only once losing two games in a row – became a driving factor that paid off after the loss that opened this series.
“The most important thing about this team is after Game 1, I got a text from this guy – [Eric] Bledsoe – saying that, ‘We’ve got these guys,’” Giannis Antetokounmpo shared. “And that’s what happened. Once your teammates are all on the same page – you have their back, they have your back – things like this are gonna happen.”
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