Forsberg: Are Celtics ready to fight for their season? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Nothing has come particularly easy for the Boston Celtics this season. So why start now, right?
Still, the biggest lingering question we have after the Celtics let Game 5 slip out of their hands on Wednesday night is whether the team is ready to fight -- again -- for its season.
For the second time in three games, the Celtics squandered a chance to salt away wins in the final minutes of an Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Milwaukee Bucks and, because of that, their season is on life support. The Celtics must topple the defending champs in consecutive games, including Friday’s Game 6 in Milwaukee, or an improbable second-half surge will end with the whimper of a second-round exit.
If you had told any Celtics fan in early January, when the Celtics were three games under .500 and sat in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, that the season would end with an absolute Royal Rumble against the Bucks in Round 2, most would have gladly taken it. But expectations rose quickly based on Boston’s dominant play in calendar year 2022 and there would be obvious disappointment if it does end without a further surge.
It’ll hurt even more because 1) The Celtics have often played like the better team in this series, particularly with the Bucks operating without All-Star swingman Khris Middleton and 2) The Celtics have had so many chances to take control of this series and have shot themselves in the foot repeatedly.
There were missed shots with a chance to build a two-possession lead late in Game 3 in Milwaukee. A single rebound might have salted away Game 5 at TD Garden. If you’re reading this, you don’t need a blow-by-blow rundown of all that went wrong at the finish line on Wednesday night -- your TV is probably at the repair shop right now after you threw something through the screen.
The Bucks are playing with the heart of a champion while the Celtics are still learning that it takes 48 full minutes of sustained effort to beat a quality opponent. They were able to keep pushing when they hit adversity early in the 2021-22 season. Are they ready to do it again?
Historical odds of fighting back in this series are not nearly as bullish as the eye test. Boston still hasn’t played a complete game in this series. There’s a case to be made that they should have run away with Game 5 but poor shot selection late in the second quarter, and poor ball security throughout the fourth opened the door for the Bucks.
And, like champs, they pounced.
Review the game tape at your own peril. The Bucks made all six 3-pointers they attempted in the fourth quarter, including two bold triples from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday to erase what had been a six-point deficit and quiet TD Garden. The Celtics didn’t even attempt a 3-pointer, the first time they haven’t taken a triple in an entire frame since November 2014.
Holiday was a defensive menace in the final moments, twice swarming Marcus Smart, the Defensive Player of the Year, on last-gasp opportunities. Smart is drawing grief in the aftermath but everyone on the Celtics -- from the players on the court to coach Ime Udoka -- deserves some measure of blame for being unable to get to the finish line of that win.
There is little use lamenting what might have been. The Celtics have proven they can win in Milwaukee and must do it again in Game 6. The vibes in the series will feel a lot different if Boston is coming home for a pivotal Game 7 than they do in the aftermath of squandered Game 5 -- especially after the Bucks essentially elected to slip to No. 3 in the East and punted on homecourt advantage in this instance by downshifting at the finish line of the regular season.
The road map to extending this series isn’t overly complicated for Boston. The Bucks have been mediocre at best in the halfcourt this series. Here are Milwaukee’s halfcourt offensive ratings for the first five games: 75.6, 91.4, 75.6, 94.3, and 87.8. If the Celtics don’t shoot themselves in the foot -- or allow someone other than Antetokounmpo to erupt for a big night -- it feels like 100+ points should be enough to win.
But the Celtics can’t let their foot off the gas for even a second. They can’t get comfortable with a 14-point lead. Jayson Tatum can’t settle for OK shots when the offense bogs down. Boston can’t hunt mismatches and abandon its ball-moving ways. The defense has to race back and get set to force Milwaukee to play against a halfcourt set instead of generating transition opportunities.
All that is easier said than done in a series in which players looked positively gassed. The only thing missing from the court lately has been steel chairs and ladders.
But the reward should be worth the effort. Part of the reason bowing at this stage would be so infuriating is that the race for the NBA title feels wide open among the eight remaining teams. There’s no clear-cut favorite. In the East, it feels like the Celtics-Bucks could be the real conference finals matchup and -- while Miami or Philadelphia would be no walkover -- Boston’s heaviest lifts would be in the rearview (assuming, of course, the team is healthy and has anything left in the tank coming out of this series).
Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA. The Celtics know damn well that health is certainly not assured. Even in this series they’ve had to navigate at times without Smart and Robert Williams and both of their wins have come shorthanded. But part of the reason that Brad Stevens went all-in on this team at the trade deadline, splurging future picks to add Derrick White, was the opportunity in front of this team based on its play and potential.
Throughout much of Game 5, it looked like Stevens’ deadline maneuverings might be the difference in this series. White and Daniel Theis were key parts of Boston building a double-digit lead. Al Horford, acquired while moving out Kemba Walker’s contract, has been maybe Boston’s most consistent presence throughout the playoffs.
If Boston’s journey ends this weekend, there will much consternation about what happens next. Questions about how Stevens must further shape the roster and the need for a little more talent will dominate the headlines.
But the opportunity is still there for the Celtics. Tatum still hasn’t had one of his signature big nights in this series. Boston has shown in stretches that it can play to a much higher level. The ever-present threat of a big Antetokounmpo performance is there but the Celtics have more overall top-line talent in this series given the absence of Middleton.
So how much do they want it? These moments always make us think of the old quote that hovered on the wall in the Celtics’ old training facility: "What hurts more, the pain of hard work, or the pain of regret?”
Winning two straight, including one in Milwaukee will not be easy. The Celtics could play two perfect games and Antetokounmpo could make it all for naught with one supernova performance. But the opportunity is there.
Sometimes the Celtics operate like a team that doesn't want things to come easy. Don’t misconstrue. You don’t put together the best defense in the NBA without being willing to roll up your sleeves and do the dirty work. But Boston simply has a nasty habit of downshifting at inopportune times because they are too content with the effort that put them in an ideal spot.
You can’t let go of the rope for even a bit at this stage of the season. The Bucks are too good, too tested. They rallied out of an 0-2 hole in last year’s Finals as part of their title march. They know what it takes to grind out must-have wins.
The Celtics are still learning. But playoff experience shouldn’t be an excuse. Tatum and Jaylen Brown have plenty of big-game experience. Al Horford has played 133 playoff contests. This team is still learning as a group but they must figure it out on the fly.
Are the Celtics ready to put in 48 full minutes of work to keep their season alive? Or will we forever look back at this season and wonder what could have been?