First, let’s get this out of the way quickly and succinctly: the Celtics lost to the Bucks because Milwaukee is a better team. Period.
There is no mystery about this. The Bucks have the scariest player on the planet at the moment (Giannis Antetokounmpo), who should pay taxes to live at the free throw line. Even a good defensive team (which, for whatever reason, the Celtics were not this year) would have trouble containing him for an entire game.
We can debate matters such as “why was it so easy for them?” or wonder why the Celtics’ conditioned response to every Milwaukee spurt was to lie down and shrivel up in the fetal position.
But it is quite possible that even a motivated Celtics team would have had its hands full with the Bucks and might have lost this series.
I’ve reached the point where I just about cannot watch NBA basketball anymore. It is unwatchable. Yet I could make an exception with this Bucks team. It is fun to watch. Giannis (sorry, I cannot risk spelling this kid’s last name wrong any more than I have to) plays the game the way I remember it was when I liked watching it. OK, they may have to play a little traveling music whenever he goes to the hoop, but Michael Jordan and LeBron James have also been known to “step” lively on the court too. You know how it goes. Those guys can do the 50-yard dash to the hoop and draw a foul to boot, while guys like Brian Scalabrine could move his pivot foot a half-inch to the left and get whistled. So let’s stop the whining about that right now.
But I come not to praise the Bucks, but to bury the Celtics. And there’s quite a lot to bury.
Let’s establish two things at the outset. First, lay off Brad Stevens. You don’t automatically become a bad coach after being creative and innovative for your career. Sometimes, you get dealt a bad hand and no matter what you try, you just can’t salvage it. That, I’m afraid, was Stevens’ lot this season.
Still, the team won 49 games, which is only six fewer than last year, when he was a genius.
Second, and more important, this was not a good team. T-E-A-M team. They weren’t bad players (well, except for Jayson Tatum, who seemed to take 10 giant steps backward). But the collective whole was far less than the sum of its parts.
The question is why. Was it because of the uncertainty surrounding Kyrie Irving’s situation? That’s possible. Some people can put that behind them and go out and perform. Mookie Betts of the Red Sox would appear to be that way. Irving is a tremendous talent, but he does not seem to have the ability to compartmentalize in the same manner. All season long, he seemed to have stretches of being disengaged and disruptive. I’ve played enough sports myself to understand how brittle the chemistry is on teams where having a healthy ego goes hand-in-hand with performance. There are 12 players on the Celtics, which means there are also 12 healthy egos. Even the Patrice Bergerons of the world have egos. Otherwise they could never get out there every night and play.
But it doesn’t take much to upset that balance. When Irving decides he’s going to freeze someone out on the court and do it all by himself, or when he makes allusions to the lack of supporting cast around him, he’s not going to win friends among his peers. Even if — a lot of the time — he’s right.
I daresay back in October, when Tuukka Rask couldn’t stop a beach ball, none of the Bruins’ players were calling him out in public. Now look at him. He’s the toast of the town — and still undented.
What happens from here on out is anybody’s guess. But bad marriages can happen between good people. And I’m afraid this is the case here. So my guess is the two parties cut their losses and move on.
Gordon Hayward is a different story. He suffered a gruesome injury at the beginning of last season, and most anyone who has ever been hurt that badly will tell you it takes almost an entire season, even after the rehab, to recover physically and mentally.
Hayward showed flashes of what he could be this year, and showed flashes of a guy still trying to sort things out. I don’t think it’s fair to come down too hard on him. But if he’s this inconsistent next season, we may have to start thinking about chalking this up to a bad signing. It happens.
Beyond those two, others the Celtics may have counted on to take them to the NBA finals just didn’t come through. We’ve mentioned Tatum, who seemed to be a passive defensive player (and that’s being kind). Marcus Smart didn’t get any worse, but he didn’t get any better either. It took Jaylen Brown a while to get going, but, like the rest of the team, he turned invisible in the last week.
It was never a question of individual talent as much as it was the lack of cohesion this season. And fair or unfair, the tangible representation of such a malaise is Uncle Drew. It’s too bad when you think of what could have been.
Instead, we’re left with what is. And it is hugely disappointing to the point of being infuriating — a wide-open window that will not remain open forever.