The fourth seed in a LeBron-less East, down 3-1 in the Conference Semis, and chaos being the one word to summarize their season. Yikes.
Hard to see this at the beginning of the season though the signs were there. This time next week the Celtics might clammer on what could have been while the Bucks look as dominant as ever in pursuit of a title run. A third straight loss proved one thing: the emotional wear, and tear of the past six months have really taken its toll fans - and it has sapped whatever juice the Celtics had left after the regular season. Giannis saved his most gut-punching dunks, and means looks for the end of the game. A 113-101 win gave the Bucks a commanding grip 3-1 in the series and are 48 minutes away from their first Conference Finals appearance since 2001.
If anything, we should have seen this coming from the Bucks. After the disappointment of the past few seasons, they needed turnover at the top. The arrival of Mike Budenholzer sparked a dominant regular season which ended the Bucks having a 60-win season (the best record in the NBA), the league's best net rating, and a point differential that put them among some of the most dominant teams of the decade. They steamrolled through the NBA during the regular season. The Pistons might as well have experimented by playing with five guards and bombed 100 threes a game because they had no chance whatsoever by playing their regular style.
Game 1 against the Celtics was a much-needed wake up call after they breezed through November through April. Employing a scheme to prevent Giannis from getting to the room and locking down on their shooters, the Celtics had an extraordinary shooting night from midrange. They have since fallen down to Earth. Apparently, it is was more effort that was needed on the part of Bucks and not a radical change in their scheme. Ever since they have broken down the Boston's defense and forced ground their offense to a halt.
After a slow Game One, Giannis has played like the MVP that he was during the regular season. At a time when Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard have taken over the mantle as the best players in the NBA, the Greek Freak reminded basketball that he too should be in consideration with more still to come.
39 points (his second-highest tally in the postseason) on 68% from the field, 16 rebounds, and four assists, with a steal and a block in under 35 minutes. No wonder Shaq gave handed his most cherished nickname, "Superman" to the 24-year-old superstar. Alongside his dominance in the paint, Giannis has shown confidence in his jump shot shooting 5-10 from beyond the arc in the East Semis. Way to torment the already horrified NBA coaches Giannis.
After struggling to get to the rim in Game One, the increase the pick-and-roll action has given Giannis clean looks at the rim. Either as the ball-handler or screener, he has repeatedly been able to exploit the Celtics switching defense and bully his way to the rim. Al Horford has been matched up less against Antetokounmpo, and he's managed to pick any other defender switching onto him. With the absence of LeBron James in the playoffs, Giannis is the only real force to bulldoze his way to the basket in the playoffs.
The Bucks - though better - still have a couple more rungs to climb before they reach their best. In Game Four, they were 8-37 from three. Khris Middleton, who has stepped up after the Game One Defeat, shot 20% from beyond the arc though this shooting overall has been proficient against Boston.
The Bucks side that faced the Celtics in the opening round of last season’s playoffs is long gone. Boston did win in seven, but neither team was able to beat the other at home. The Bucks have progressed since while Bostons have appeared to stagnate - if not taken a step back. Sure the Bucks have dominated, but it is not like the Celtics haven't helped them along the way.
Yes, for a team that was the favorite to come out the East on opening day, they have failed to capitalize on situations when the contenders would've their oppositions lunch. For all the credit Giannis deserves, he did find himself in foul trouble early in second-half. Middleton soon joined him on the bench after he too picked him his fourth foul and the score was tied at 59 a piece with half of the third quarter remaining. Middleton would re-enter the game with 20 seconds left in the third quarter, and Giannis would come back in the fourth. With the two best players on the bench for the Bucks, Boston failed to take the game into their own hands. Milwaukee would finish the quarter with an eight-point lead. Kyrie played throughout the second half, and they were unable to make the most of that moment when George Hill was the best player on the floor.
The signs were always there. For all the praise the Celtics got after last season's playoff run, the reintroductions of Irving and Gordon Hayward did not elevate this team to the level that was expected. They have been frustrating to watch on the floor and maddening petty off it. Their best run of games came after the team had an infamous kumbaya moment on a cross country plane ride and when Irving went on an apology tour for "recent mistakes."
The fire in the belly that inspired the Celtics to be a quarter away from the NBA finals without their two best players (on paper) was extinguished before the 2018-19 season started. With Hayward only played four minutes as Celtic before horrifically shattering his left leg, and Irving missing the 2018 playoffs with another knee injury - adding two All-Stars to an already deep roster was supposed to be the difference to make Boston the best in the East. In reality, the entire operation was an ugly affair.
The likes of Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown struggled with a reduced role. Hayward looked like a shadow of himself until the dog days of the regular season before his form slumped again. To top things off, Irving - for all his complaints about the media coverage of the Celtics - has frequently conveyed his discontent about on several issues, particularly his impending free agency. He is widely expected to opt out of his $21.3 million player options to become a first-time unrestricted free agent. With all the drama surrounding the team combined with the fact that everybody appears to have given up on whatever their plan was, perhaps leaving the kelly green is best for everyone.
For all the melodrama during the regular season, Kyrie was consistent with the notion that the real Celtics would reveal itself come playoff time. All the trivial nonsense that commenced was expected to miraculously solve itself come April, and the title contender was supposed to blossom out of a cocoon of passive aggressive vitriol and side eyes. The "flip the switch mentality" that Kyrie and the Cavaliers had would translate to a relatively young and inexperienced team who'd never made a championship run before. We're still waiting.
Despite sweeping the Oladipo-less Pacers, the Celtics were unimpressive. For a brief moment, Al Horford locking up Giannis looked the spark that would inspire Boston to make the most out of their potential. Youth combined with veteran experience, versatility, and a cold-blooded killer to operate with the ball. All the ingredients of a contender were there, and this should have been enough to close the gap between Boston and the rest of the East. Maybe they needed a feel-good plane ride midseason and a tuneup first round to bring out the real team.
Horford has averaged a solid 18 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4 assists and a block on 52% from both the field and from behind the arc. And yet, he's struggled to out wrestle Giannis over the past 96 minutes. Hayward was starting to show shades of his former self towards the end of the regular season though whatever momentum he built is long gone. He can't beat the likes of Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez off the bounce and is shooting 34% from the field for the series. What was supposed to be Boston's biggest trump card has been their biggest hindrance for the series.
Forget the rest of the roster, Kyrie has been ordinary against the Bucks. He's played some of his worst basketball offensively going 19/62 since Game One and has had some horrid defensive calls wanting to single-handedly guard Giannis on multiple positions. In fairness, he did dish out 10 assists in their Game Four loss. It's not like he's hogging the ball, but he by no means is at the helm of a free-flowing offense.
The Bucks will look to finish things off in Game Five. While Marcus Morris has been critical of their play and Brad Stevens believing that the Celtics still have more left to give - Giannis will look to crush any glimmer of hope.
The signs were there from Day One of the season, but most of us were too naive to see it. Now, Milwaukee are 48 short minutes away from Conference Finals berth after nearly two decades. The end of the Celtics seasons is similar to the rest of their season - nobody knowing what the hell is going on or why everyone is so contentious. Many would've hoped that Boston's summer would start in June but their biggest offseason of this century could begin after Game Five at the Fiserv Forum. All season long, Boston has had to deal with questions regarding Irving impending free agency, and Danny Ainge has eyed Anthony Davis for as long as he's been playing basketball.
Championship windows are incredibly short. For this iteration of the Boston Celtics, it might just have ended before it could truly begin. What was shaping up to be a dynasty that would enter the next decade as the team to be hunted might have just been a mirage. If they have anything left in the tank, the time is now to prove everyone wrong. Giannis is ready to stamp his authority on the East with Boston looking to be nothing but a speed bump in his path to success.