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Did the Boston Celtics just blow their best chance to put away the Milwaukee Bucks and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals and, by extension, the NBA Finals?
Forgive the indelicate, brick-to-the-small-of-your-back start to this discussion. There is no point in dressing up what just happened to the Celtics in Game 5 on Wednesday night. They choked, plain and simple, thoroughly and completely, maybe even irreversibly.
It is neither hyperbolic nor unfair to say as much. A 14-point lead and near-total control of the entire game devolved into a hapless fourth quarter and 110-107 loss to the Bucks.
The odds overwhelmingly favored the Celtics to win even inside two minutes of play. So, yes, this is absolutely a missed opportunity of epic proportions:
Late-game unravelings are seldom so comprehensive. Everyone will remember Jrue Holiday’s iconic defensive stops on Marcus Smart over Boston’s final two offensive possessions. This block, in particular, was made infinitely more diabolical when Holiday threw the rock off Smart to ensure Milwaukee gained control of the ball:
And then there’s the steal he swiped from the Defensive Player of the Year after Pat Connaughton made two clutch free throws. Holiday never even allowed Smart to cross half-court:
Now seems like a good time to note the Bucks won just as much as the Celtics lost. Holiday hit some big shots down the stretch in addition to his defensive play. Bobby Portis Jr. hustled his ass off—Wesley Matthews did too. Connaughton remains one of the league’s more underrated two-way wings.
And, oh, yeah: Giannis pieced another masterpiece, detonating for 40 points, 11 rebounds and a handful of WTF defensive plays. His seven turnovers look egregious on paper, but he was so often the Bucks’ only source of offense and the primary reason this game never went off the rails for Milwaukee.
Charles Krupa/Associated Press
Still, none of this overshadows how responsible the Celtics are for their own demise. This isn’t just about the final few possessions. They imploded in almost every imaginable way down the stretch. That they lost the fourth quarter by “only” 12 points (33-21) seems like a minor miracle.
After dictating pace and matchups through most of the first three quarters, Boston played the final frame like a team without direction. Five of its 10 turnovers came in the fourth, which Milwaukee parlayed into 10 points. Seven of the 17 offensive rebounds the Celtics gave up were surrendered during the final period, as well. The Bucks converted those into a total of nine second-chance points after mustering just 11 through the first three frames.
Aspects of Milwaukee’s fourth-quarter revival were beyond Boston’s control. Giannis and Jrue both made shots to which you can only sigh, make the AlonzoMourning.gif face and move on.
The Celtics did precisely the opposite. They harped. They griped. On offense, they hemmed and hawed, playing seemingly without rhyme or reason or any semblance of pace.
Their ball movement fell off a cliff:
They failed to adequately capitalize on entering the bonus early in the fourth:
They took zero three-pointers. That’s “zero” with a Z. For the entire quarter. In the year 2022.
Hoisting threes isn’t everything, and the Bucks were more meticulous about chasing the Celtics off the line later in the game. But getting outscored 18-0 from behind the arc in a single quarter is a pretty damn good way to blow a double-digit lead.
Then, of course, we have the rampant self-sabotage in the waning seconds of Game 5—the moments that will compel many to make Marcus Smart the face of this monumental collapse.
He broke script from the after timeout play drawn up by head coach Ime Udoka (as confirmed by Jayson Tatum):
John Schuhmann @johnschuhmann
Looks like Smart was supposed to pop to the top & then hit Tatum off the pin-down from Horford, but Connaughton was top-blocking.
Credit Connaughton for getting back in front of Smart, holding him up for a split second & allowing Holiday to make that (incredible) block. https://t.co/RHgZdNqPWf
He also missed a wiiiiide open Tatum on the final, last-gasp possession that Holiday blew up:
Blaming one person for an entire collapse is beyond reductive. Wins and losses are not a player stat.
Smart is not responsible for the times that Tatum and even Grant Williams lollygagged back on defense because they wanted to have heated sidebars with an official. He did not commit all of Boston’s turnovers. He alone did not get away from riding the incendiary device known as Al Horford, who attempted a mere seven shots. He did not let Portis grab a critical offensive rebound off a Giannis missed free throw, though he did tip it.
Smart also cannot be blamed for Holiday’s defensive transcendence or for Connaughton party-crashing the ATO that ended in a Holiday block. Smart made mistakes and played a poor fourth quarter, but so did the rest of the team.
This failure is not unique to him. It is on the Celtics—all of them—and they must now face the consequences.
What should have been a victory and 3-2 lead is instead a 3-2 deficit and a season on the brink. Perhaps the Celtics win Game 6. The thing is, they also have to win Game 7. And beating Giannis Antetokounmpo twice in a row, even without Khris Middleton by his side, is a gargantuan task. Boston has yet to do it in this series.
And if the Celtics’ comeback-that-never-should’ve-been-needed falls short, or if it never gets off the ground, they will look to this game, this fourth quarter, as the moment that cost them their season—and what once looked like a genuine crack at an NBA title.