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Celtics Can’t Bobble This Chance

May 2, 2019

By Steve Bulpett

Boston Herald

Milwaukee did as expected in Game 2 of this Eastern Conference semifinal series, and the Celtics most certainly did not handle it well.

The Bucks played with an intensity and energy they didn’t have in the opener, and the Celts not only didn’t match it, they allowed it to fluster them.

But as they took Wednesday off to rest (and ponder their misdeeds), there should be a large measure of comfort in the knowledge those two issues are easily correctable.

Play harder. Play smarter.

There can be no question that Milwaukee will be braced for impact in Game 3 Friday, but even if it is as in tune as Tuesday, the Celtics still retain the ability to blunt the Bucks’ best.

The Bostonians were playing some shaky ball in the most recent affair even before the roof of Milwaukee’s new arena fell in on them in the third quarter. They were trying to solve the Bucks’ new switching defense with one-on-one maneuvers, which took the C’s out of the crisp offense they’ve been playing with greater frequency these last few weeks.

Then... that third quarter. Sure, the Bucks applied more scrambling pressure, but those eight Celtic turnovers were, if not unforced, then minimally forced.

Later, Kyrie Irving sat at the table on the riser in the interview room and chastised himself for his 4-for-18 shooting and more. We opined before the start of these playoffs that it seemed an improved version of Irving, not so much as a player (his season had been generally impeccable), but as a lead personality with the power to control the club’s temperature.

I’ve noted here before over the years how Magic Johnson won the 1985 Finals for the Lakers with how he handled his public duties in the visitors’ dressing room at the old Garden after LA was blown out by 34 points. He patiently explained what the game was and what it wasn’t, and he took the pressure off his tightly wound teammates who’d been bullied by Boston in the previous year’s championship series.

There was some of the Magic voice emanating from Irving as he matter-of-factly discussed how Game 2 had gotten away from the Celtics -- from him -- and how things needed to be fixed.

One of his statements got the most play: “There’s no extra burden. This is what I signed up for. This is what Boston traded for me for. So being able to go back, get back in the trenches, be ready for another battle on Friday, you know, this is what you live for.”

But I liked even more how he broke down the Celts’ Tuesday trouble to its most basic form.

“They did a great job of just making us make decisions and being in certain positions where we didn’t execute and guys were thinking that one guy was going to be there and they weren’t because they were sending three or four at the ball,” Kyrie said. “And in order to beat this team, you’ve got to play even more together -- and especially when we’re coming down and we have the talent to attack certain matchups.

“But getting that ball to the second side and getting back on another side and attacking that way and seeing the help and everyone’s in the right positions. So we shot a little too quick tonight, especially some of the shots I took. So Game 3, I’m looking forward to it.”

Irving spoke of how it was, of course, expected that the Bucks would come out harder Tuesday. “I feel like we paced the game pretty well,” he added, “but, like I said, it starts with the example of me getting down in the paint and making the right reads, and I failed to do that (Tuesday) night, so that responsibility falls on me in terms of just controlling the tempo a lot better. They were getting out in transition. They made plays. But there were times where I could have just slowed us down and just got us into some sets that we’ve gone to and attacked the switches, especially when Khris (Middleton) and (Nikola) Mirotic are switching. That’s something like I’ve just got to go by them.”

Irving’s shooting and nine points weren’t so much an issue. The quality of shots and how he sets the table are more the point. The Celtics can survive when he doesn’t fill the hoop. He went 4-for-13 (0-4 on 3-pointers) in the Game 4 win in Indy, and in his eight lowest scoring games in the regular season, the C’s were 6-2.

But they cannot win if he’s not getting them into the right spots. For the Celtics, the first correct spot has already been dictated by the schedule. They will be in the Garden Friday night, and woe be to them if they don’t bring the necessary energy to bother Giannis Antetokounmpo inside and still close out to Middleton at the 3-point line.

Having taken homecourt advantage away from the Bucks, the Celts cannot allow it to be ripped from their grasp. They need to handle this better than they did their Game 2 opportunity.

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