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The game was even at 69 four minutes into the second half when it seemed the Celtics had reached a crossroads. They’d made five of their first seven shots in the quarter, yet had lost a point to par.
There was the feeling that maybe those 10 first-half turnovers — and the 15 points the Bucks had gotten from them — were just waiting to haunt them, that squandering the opportunity to build on a lead that had gotten as great as a dozen would be an issue later.
And so it all came to pass as Milwaukee shot 64.7 percent and went for 40 points in the third quarter as the Celts struggled and ultimately failed to keep up. The Bucks’ lead grew to as many as 17 while the C’s were putting their heads down and driving into the teeth of their opponent’s defense with predictably poor results.
The Celts did make a late run, but getting within five on an Al Horford 3-pointer with 10 seconds left will only make this one look better in the history books.
Third quarter defense dooms Celtics again: One game after watching the Bucks erupt with a 24-2 third-quarter run, the Celtics defense fell apart at the seams for the second straight game in the third period. Giannis Anteokounmpo scored a game-high 32 points to lead five different Bucks in double figures as the visitors turned in a 40-point third quarter to take control of the game in a 123-116 victory.
Boston Sports Journal: BSJ Game Report: Bucks 123, Celtics 116
“I’ve got to be more efficient,” Irving said. “I’ve got to be more efficient, especially when I’m getting downhill on those switches. I’ve got to punish those guys. And it’s as simple as that. I’ve got to do what I’m really great at, and that’s getting downhill and making plays and getting to the rim and dishing it. But when I see a big on me and I see those guys with slow feet I’ve gotta go right at them.”
With a chance to seize control of this series, the Regular Season Celtics showed up instead of the Playoff Celtics. You know who the Playoff Celtics are – the team that swept the Pacers and dominated the Bucks in Game 1.
The Regular Season Celtics are the frustrating bunch that can never get over the hump, who disappoint rather than surprise, who fail to meet our admittedly high expectations.
In Game 3, we saw some familiar themes:
- Controlling most of the first half but leading by only one point at intermission, after squandering a double-digit lead.
- Committing 18 turnovers that led to 28 Milwaukee points.
- Getting killed at the free throw line (more on that later).
- Being crushed in paint points, 52-24.
- Losing the third quarter, 40-31.
- Losing the bench scoring battle, 42-16. (George Hill scored 21 points. Pat Connaughton made 4 threes.)
- Getting literally nothing from Terry Rozier (0 points, 0 assists) and no impact from Gordon Hayward (10 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, but relatively passive; he didn’t give the Bucks any reason to worry about him).
- Totaling 17 assists in the first half but a pitiful 7 (indicating no ball movement) in the second half.
All this on a night when Jayson Tatum finally got going (20 points, 11 rebounds), and on the other side, Eric Bledsoe was terrible (4-15 shooting) and Khris Middleton (20 points on 6-12) for once did not go on a rampage.
Look, the series is far from over. Obviously, Game 4 is a must-win, because falling behind 3-1 means the season will be over soon.
But if they can tie the series at 2-2, we’ll be back to “anything is possible.” Because we know they can win in Milwaukee. Because there’s still time for Kyrie to go supernova. Because maybe Marcus Smart will come back. (Probably not, but maybe.)
I’ll stay optimistic as long as the Cs give me a reason to do so. But for that, we’re going to need the Playoff Celtics to show up, every time.
Related – NBC Sports Boston: Celtics stumble, fall, can’t get up from second-half Bucks surge | Highlights of the Celtics’ 123-116 Game 3 loss to the Bucks
MassLive: Boston Celtics can’t keep Milwaukee Bucks out of paint, off the free-throw line, fall 123-116 in Game 3 | Brad Stevens hints Boston Celtics might utilize Aron Baynes vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo more after Game 3 loss | Moving past fouls, more Horford shots, and 10 things we learned from Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks
On Page 2: A foul third quarter
If the Celtics thought they could just get the Bucks to fold like fresh laundry in the bubbling basketball cauldron of emotion on Causeway Street they were mistaken.
It helped that Antetokounmpo took up residence at the free throw line. He attempted all eight Milwaukee free throws in the first half, doubling the total of Irving, who had all of Boston’s free throw attempts.
The Greek Freak might not be an NBA MVP winner yet. But he gets MVP calls. Antetokounmpo shot 22 free throws on this night, helping him to 32 points, 13 rebounds, and 8 assists. Giannis had a standing invitation at the charity stripe. Before some cosmetic officiating in the fourth quarter, when the Bucks had the game in hand, the free throw disparity in the game was glaring and infuriating for the Celtics. The Bucks had a 25-16 free throw attempt advantage after three quarters. The final tally was 36 freebies for Milwaukee and 32 for the Celtics.
The Celtics didn’t play well enough, but they still might have won if the officiating had been more even.
For example, after taking zero free throws in the first two games of this series, Kyrie went to the line 12 times in Game 3 and made 11 as part of his 29-point night. Yet Giannis took almost twice as many. It’s hard to believe, but the probable MVP has now taken 50 (!) FTAs in three games.
In the first half, the Bucks shot 8 FTs and the Cs took 4, but in the pivotal third quarter, Milwaukee went to the line 17 times. The Celtics were over the limit after just five minutes and were called for 12 fouls.
The trend continued into the fourth quarter.
That was a textbook phantom foul, and it was Jaylen’s fifth personal. The ref wasn’t even calling anything until Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer commanded him to blow the whistle. It was laughable.
The disparity helped swing the game to the Bucks, and people noticed.
By game’s end, the FTAs were almost even: Bucks 36, Celts 32. But that’s because Boston shot 16 free throws in the fourth quarter, when Milwaukee had already built a comfortable lead.
Here’s a small sampling of pithy reactions:
(This next one was Semi Ojeleye being called for a charge, even though Giannis had his foot on the charge/block line. The TV announcer said, “Just outside the restricted area.”)
All this, and we haven’t even seen Scott Foster yet in this series.
Now whether you think the Celtics are being hosed or they need to play better without fouling, the bottom line is the same: the Celtics probably can’t win if Giannis is taking 18 or 22 free throws. Somehow, they have to solve that problem, or else.
Related – Globe: Celtics should focus on defense, not freak out at the officials
NBC Sports Boston: Don’t blame the refs; Celtics need to be mentally tougher
Boston Sports Journal: Robb: Blame falls on Celtics, not officials after costly Game 3 loss to Bucks
And, finally… RIP 17
With their first home game since John Havlicek’s passing, the Celtics honored their former captain with a moment of silence and a video tribute. The players also wore black warmup shirts decorated with a green No. 17.
Related – MassLive: Boston Celtics honor John Havlicek before Game 3 vs. Milwaukee Bucks