Tonight was Game #8 in the experiment that is the 2018-2019 Celtics season. By this point last year, the Celtics were also 5-2 after a couple of early defeats on their way to winning 16 straight.
This year’s team has also gotten off to a slow start, not because of surprise calamity, but more or less because their two stars have been rehabbing on the job.
In case you weren’t already aware, tonight was a STATEMENT GAME against the new-look Bucks, with both teams and the Raptors jockeying for the top spot on the East leaderboard. The Bucks have been the talk of the season so far, coming in undefeated with the largest point differential per 100 possession and an almost shockingly different style of play than the team the Celtics were able to contain in last year’s first round of the playoffs.
The question wasn’t only if the Celtics’ top ranked offense could stop the Bucks hyper efficient offensive machine but more so if the Celtics could keep up the ball movement they discovered two games ago and find their rhythm against the league’s second ranked defense.
This match up resumed more or less where the Celtics-Bucks playoff series left off, including a surprise appearance in the starting lineup from Semi Ojeleye in place of the injured Jaylen Brown (nursing a sore foot) who was notoriously crucial last year in covering Giannis Antetokounmpo. There was no love lost for Eric Bledsoe with introduction boos and perhaps some extra energy bubbling in the Garden from the Red Sox parade.
What was different was who came out firing out of the gates. Gordon Hayward, who said he’s started to remember who he was pre-injury, came out looking decidedly more like himself and intent on updating the “horrific injury” narrative sooner than later. He splashed an early three and even showed some of that mismatch strength we’ve all heard about, bullying the strong Malcolm Brogdon in the paint for an early banker.
Kyrie, a new man with new hair and less poundage, also found an early groove and had a noticeable pep in his step with a gorgeous early floater, getting to the paint at will.
The Celtics were chucking threes and hitting some early, and don’t be fooled, because that was definitely part of the plan.
Despite the Bucks’ vaunted new everything and opponents shooting sub 30% from beyond the arc against them, they do allow a high number of threes because of their focus on stopping teams at the rim. And so the Celtics knew coming into the game that they would get a ton of open shots from deep if they wanted them.
Despite that, this was not an unpopular early opinion.
The twitter oracles from CB retorted that fans would later bite their tongues once those open threes taken by design started falling. FORESHADOWING.
Although the Celtics’ emphasis on getting into the paint before hurling it back outside faltered later in the 1st -- making the Celtics offense revert to its early season lack of coherence -- they stuck to their guns and kept firing. Stevens later confirmed that the Celtics’ bombs away approach was intentional.
Part of what made this appealing was the Bucks curiously choosing not to switch and opting instead of having Brook Lopez take a stab at slowing down Irving, obvously completely unable to do anything close to containing the penetration, and attempt to recover in an appropriate fashion which would have him anywhere in the same panorama frame as Horford.
Horford was consequently an active participant leading the three point party early and a recipient of Kyrie’s journey to re-discovering what makes Kyrie special. What seems obvious to the rest of us, namely, that when Kyrie gets into the paint, good things happen for him and others, it’s been trying at times watching him over-defer in an attempt to somehow lead this team doing things other than what makes him this team’s most devastating offensive weapon.
While the Celtics have repaired their stagnant offense in the last couple of games, what remains a curiosity is their reluctance to find the bucket on fast breaks, and instead opting to telegraph that they’re trying to set up a 3, not unlike our old friend Rajon Rondo. The would finish the first half with exactly 0 fast break points despite forcing 4 TOs in the 1st quarter.
Giannis was relatively quiet in the early going, opting for an array of pull up J’s and stepbacks with the occasional reminder that Giannis gets whatever Giannis wants. We got glimpses of that with his assortment of ungodly post-up-spin-and-cram moves or drives that have no business being layups. This was partially due to Ojeleye slowing down the Giannis spindly attack, despite his two early fouls, and partially because of poor decision making on the part of Giannis, which allowed the Celtics to throw a late double at him, or have Horford come from the weakside and stifle a shot at the rim.
Ojeleye, who has been conditioned not to fear the deer, but to smell the fear on the deer, gave the Celtics some much needed contributions. He nailed a couple of threes and made Drew Hanlen proud on his way to a 10 point first half.
The basketball spirits did not want me to watch the beginning of the second quarter (instead stealthily changing the channel to Impractical Jokers on TruTV) when those threes turned into pumpkins and Giannis’ eyes lit up at not seeing Horford on the floor; he suddenly metamorphosed into his “everything is a layup if I want it to be” self. Aron Baynes, meanwhile, took and made exactly zero of three threes during that dry stretch. It was an ugly tactical matchups pinning Team Layups versus Team Threes, with Team Layups quickly dissolving the Celtics 23-16 1st quarter lead.
The starting lineup finally showed us its fangs tonight. Hayward immediately got back to business once inserted back into the game, Kyrie’s energy level was noticeably higher than it’s been earlier in the season, bouncing all over the court, feeding Hayward for a open J at the elbow and later Horford for a dunk.
Then, the shift. At the two minute mark, almost at 100% Kyrie impersonation level, Kyrie waves off the pick and takes Pat Connaughton through series of nasty dribble moves but uncustomarily steps out of bounds before draining the three.
He immediately makes up for it by nailing a three the next trip down, swiping Ersan Ilyasova on the way up before promptly nailing another three. The Celtics carry a 55-53 lead into halftime, and while there is a halftime, Kyrie is still mentally out there making every shot in sight.
The Bucks finish the half with 40 paint points. It’s totally a normal NBA game.
Meanwhile, Irving resumes his shooting barrage with three more triples on his way to 15 straight points early in the third. Jayson Tatum finally gets in on the action after a sleepy start off a gracious pass from Kyrie and the floodgates are officially open.
The Celtics extend the lead to 93-78 at the end of the third — fast approaching a record number of taken and made threes. Unfortunately the three point party is halted again as the Bucks start the fourth quarter in the same fashion they did the second. They put up eight quick points and the lead shrinks to 3, 90-93. Stevens doesn’t like the sloppy shot selection and quickly yanks the bench so the starters can finish the job they started.
Tatum once again opens the three point faucet and the C’s resume their three point night-after-Halloween massacre at the Garden with Kyrie continuing to take it to poor defenseless Brook Lopez. The starters push it back to 9, 113-104 with 3:48 to go at which point Giannis and Kris Middleton decide to largely forget their teammates and takeover the game for the Bucks.
And then the game gets ugly and disjointed. The Celtics three point fairy dust expires and a series of unnerving empty possessions ensue.
Kyrie gets a standing ovation bringing the ball down the court after the Brogdon layup brings it to with two with 1:45 to go, and the Celtics miss back-to-back-to-back open threes courtesy of a pair of errand open shots by Kyrie and one by Hayward.
Middleton ends up with what appears to be a mismatch down low on Kyrie, but Kyrie uses those magic pesky hands to deflect the ball despite being knocked off his spot and causes the travel by cramping Middleton’s space, and amusing the crowd with a travel jeer. Giannis improbably misses the reverse on the following offensive possession with Horford hounding him and Bledsoe tackles Mook out of bounds out of frustration.
There’s a late scare when Tatum caves to the full court pressure and coughs it up, but Horford jinxes Bledsoe into missing a free throw with 12.8 to go.
Bledsoe misses a bunny that would have put the Bucks within one and the Celtics survive the late Bucks push and the fake foul call on a clean Smart block on Antetokounmpo. Celtics win, 117-113.
So much for the Bucks’ unbeaten streak. The Celtics knock them off the league pedestal, Kyrie and Gordon have their best games of the young season, and the Celtics inch closer to the team we were promised by continuing their exquisite ball movement with 30 assists, while the Bucks revert to the Bucks we once knew (with a 9/29 3pt shooting performance).
The Celtics come oh so close to breaking a league record for threes (25), shatter their previous best with 24 makes (with still sharp shooting Mook making the last one) and everyone on the Celtics contributes to the barrage except for Marcus Smart’s new hairdo.
The Pacers are next and at this rate, no one is going to want to face this team.