With their season on the line, the Boston Celtics found themselves in a rock fight on Wednesday night in Milwaukee.
Somehow, the visitors were down by just three points at the end of the first quarter despite shooting 23 percent from the field in the opening frame. The Celtics weren’t getting a lot of good shots thanks to some tenacious Bucks defense and lackluster ball movement, and when the team did find an open look, they usually found a way to miss it. Yet, they overcame those struggles early with solid team defense on a poor shooting night for the Bucks 3-point shooters. If they fought hard, they could give themselves a shot.
All year long the Celtics have failed to win rock fights, going 0-9 in the regular season when scoring 100 points or less. The C’s lived and died with their offense on most nights, lacking the defensive identity to will themselves to wins when the points weren’t there to lean on.
If there was any night a team would snap out of this mindset, it would presumably come with the season on the line. A Celtics squad that struggled with the little things all year long would need to do all of them to even give themselves a chance in this contest. Some Celtics managed to do that for the first three quarters of this contest. Marcus Morris continued to play his ass off and make the right play. Marcus Smart got his hands dirty per usual and slowed down George Hill. Al Horford (despite a brutal shooting night) had a positive plus/minus for his 29 minutes over the first three quarters. Yet, the Celtics found themselves with another insurmountable 16-point deficit by the time the fourth quarter rolled around. When it looked like it couldn’t get any worse for Kyrie Irving after Game 4, it did as his play fell off a cliff in terms of decisionmaking and effort on both ends of the floor, capping one of the worst series in franchise history for an All-Star.
It’s hard to put too much individual blame on Irving for his offense (15 points, 6-of-21 FG, 1-of-7 3pt) on a night when the team shot a season-worst 31.2 percent from the field. While Irving at least attempted to get others involved in Game 4 amid his poor shooting (10 assists) he veered firmly into me-first mode on the offensive end Wednesday night and others quickly followed suit. More than half of his shot attempts came early in the shot clock and consisted of long (usually contested) jumpers over long Bucks defenders. Mike Budenholtzer bet since Game 1 that Irving would try to play hero and he succeeded in making him look like an overmatched guard in a crowd of defenders for four straight nights. Irving's one assist in 33 minutes tells the story of a team that tried to beat the Bucks individually on a night they needed to play together to have any chance. Instead, he settled for shots like this:
The final numbers of Irving’s last four games on the offensive end of the floor (30% FG, 18% 3-pt, 3.5 TPG, 20.5 FGA per game) would have gotten any other non-All-Star benched. With the Celtics lack of depth options (Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier were both brutal this series and Smart was limited in his return), Stevens rode the guy that was supposed to carry the offense. He failed to deliver on that promise.
Irving will probably never have a shooting stretch like this again in his life (he never shot below 30 percent in four straight games in his postseason career before tonight) but the bigger thing that will stand out about the 26-year-old from this series was his defense. The Celtics only had one way they could pull out a win in this game and Irving’s regular lapses on that end were just too much to overcome in addition to his pitiful shooting. A collection of his gaffes cost the Celtics 11 points in the first half alone, which accounted for essentially all of the Bucks' 13-point lead at the half: