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Should have seen it coming: Takeaway from Celtics/Bucks Game 4

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Maybe the real Boston Celtics have been there all along

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Kyrie Irving made an early exit from Monday’s Game 4 against the Milwaukee Bucks. Irving walked off the floor with 9.8 seconds left on the clock, and when asked about it post-game, he said, “it was over.” Much like Irving’s early exit, the Boston Celtics appear poised to do the same from the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

Normally, this space features a bunch of points to take away from the game. It’s usually a mix of good and bad. It’s not that Boston had no good plays in Game 4, because they did. But no one really cares. This is no longer a team on the way up, where looking for some light inside the darkness of a loss is called for. The Celtics are supposed to be past that. This team was supposed to contend for a title, and instead is going to go out with barely a whimper in the second round of the NBA Playoffs.

In many ways, we should have seen this coming, but the Celtics just kept pulling us in. They were the living embodiment of “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” Boston had tons of preseason hype. This team had advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2018, despite being without Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Daniel Theis. That’s two starters and a key role player off the bench. Not only that, but the Celtics were a poor shooting night away from making the NBA Finals.

That run sparked dreams of not only a bright future, but an almost incandescent present. Boston’s kids had grown up right before our eyes, and they’d done it on the biggest stage possible. Jayson Tatum went toe-to-toe with LeBron James and didn’t blink. Jaylen Brown showed an offensive/defensive combination package that had many labeling him as untouchable in trade talks. Terry Rozier played well enough in place of Irving that he was either a prime trade asset or the point guard of the future if Irving left as a free agent. And Brad Stevens was being so lauded that conversations started about how many players would go ahead of Stevens in an expansion draft that included both players and coaches.

By the time the 2018-19 preseason rolled around, Boston was returning everyone, including Irving, Hayward and Theis, and had swapped a disappointing Greg Monroe for exciting rookie Robert Williams and switched out the deep point guard option from Shane Larkin to Brad Wanamaker. Essentially, the Celtics were running it back, but adding two All-Stars to the mix and deepening the bench. There were questions being posed like “how many games would Boston’s bench win in the Eastern Conference?”

Yet there were worries. Was Hayward ready to go? Is there such a thing as too much depth? Is Irving going to stay? Each was answered: probably not, but the team can give him all the time he needs. No, depth is necessary and these guys all get it. And, on the eve of the season starting, Irving said to Celtics season ticketholders “I’m going to re-sign here in Boston if you’ll have me.” Everything was coming up green.

On Opening Night, the Celtics drilled the 76ers. It was sort of a culmination,a crowning achievement that Danny Ainge had built the perfect roster and Stevens was coaching the group that would finally take down the Golden State Warriors. But if Opening Night is a signature highlight, your season probably took a turn.

By Thanksgiving, Boston was a .500 team. They would show up and dominate a team here and there, but also suffer frustrating losses. Hayward regularly looked like a guy whose foot was pointing the wrong way a little over a year prior. All that depth was leading to some underlying concerns about minutes for everyone. Irving was doing his thing, but it seemed a little off.

There were more highs for sure. The Celtics won eight straight games in late-November/early-December. They went into Oracle and hammered the Warriors. But overall, the season was ragged and up-and-down. Boston struggled to harness what it did well during the good times, and regularly let the poor play seep back in.

Things came to a head in mid-January when the Celtics lost a frustrating game in Orlando. Following the game, Irving called out his team’s mindset. He vacillated between openly and subtly questioning whether his teammates had what it took to be a championship-caliber squad. Shortly thereafter, Irving was asked about his commitment level to Boston long-term and answered with his now-famous “ask me on July 1st.”

As the season wound down, Irving grew fond of telling everyone not to worry and that it was all about getting to the playoffs. Meanwhile, the seeds of discontent that were planted as far back as November were about ready to be harvested. Stevens never quite figured out the minutes and roles. The only time Boston ever seemed really at their best was when players were out of the lineup due to illness or injury. The play of the younger players seemed to stagnate, as they willingly or unwillingly deferred to the veteran options. And Hayward didn’t deliver consistent play until the season’s last month or so.

Yet, we all still believed. We trusted that this group would figure out. After all, when they looked good, they looked GOOD. As the season wound down, Hayward looked great. Stevens had made some lineup changes and guys seemed to have their roles figured out. Maybe it was as Irving said, “all about the playoffs.”

And what a start to the playoffs it was. Boston drew a scrappy, but limited Indiana team. They were pushed in each game, but ultimately the Celtics swept the Pacers. Then it was on to the Bucks and one last high.

Game 1 against Milwaukee was the perfect bookend to Opening Night. Boston went on the road and dominated the higher-seeded team. It played out like everyone said it would. The Bucks had the better record, but the Celtics were a bad match up for them. The Celtics were just playing the regular season to get it over with. This was what this team was here for. It was never as good again as it was on that Sunday afternoon.

Mike Budenholzer overcame his past foibles and made key adjustments. Giannis Antetokounmpo raised his level of play even past his MVP level of the regular season. Khris Middleton continued to shoot somewhere north of 80% against the Celtics.

But those three doing their thing was sort of expected. Budenholzer is a great coach. Giannis and Middleton are All-Stars. What was unexpected was the rest of the Bucks dominating. Milwaukee’s bench, led by George Hill and Pat Connaughton, has owned the Boston reserves. The Bucks dropped Game 1, but came to Boston and not only took back home court, but smacked the Celtics around in their own building.

This is the most painful end to a Celtics season since the aging and injured Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett led team squandered a 3-2 series lead to the Miami Heat. That group was held together by Band-Aids and string for another year, but we all knew they were done. Then came a quicker rebuild than anyone could have expected.

A group of cast-offs led by an unknown of a coach was all of a sudden a playoff team again. It didn’t really matter that they were swept out of the playoffs. They were there again. And boy were they fun to root for. A second year came and went with similar results. Then things got interesting. That scrappy group of underdogs somehow became the best team in the East in the regular season. They lost to LeBron James, but that was without Isaiah Thomas, who had become the heart and soul of the team. It stung, but it was expected.

Then the Hayward signing and Irving trade came and Boston was an instant contender. When Hayward went down on Opening Night of the 2017-18 season, it was like having the toy Santa brought you break by lunchtime on Christmas Day. But you know what happened? Those Celtics fought. They battled back and lost a close one on Opening Night in Cleveland. Then they did the same the next night. They were 0-2, but you could see the fight. And that paid off, as they didn’t lose again for over a month.

Then Irving went down in mid-March, but the Celtics never stopped fighting. They made it to that Game 7 against LeBron James and took it right to the wire. Boston lost, but there was no shame. They were here and things were only going to get better.

But things rarely go as planned. It’s laid out above what happened to get to this point. This Celtics team never had the fight the last few did. The adversity was never the kind that pulled a team together, but always the kind that pushed them apart. In the last three losses to the Bucks, a theme has emerged. Boston plays well early on and looks like a team to be reckoned with. Then they hit some bumps along the way and it all falls apart. Everyone tries to do it themselves and that’s a recipe for failure.

On the other side of the floor, you know who the Bucks sort of look like? The Celtics of the last few years. They don’t panic when things don’t go their way. They keep playing hard, keep pushing, but most importantly, they do it together. Sure, Giannis is the face and the easy one to see, but his teammates are always there. And they pick up for him when necessary. He’s a foot taller Isaiah Thomas in that way. The Bucks keep it close and trust their leader to bring it home.

The Celtics, on the other hand, feel the pressure and they crumble. They look to their leader in Kyrie Irving, but it’s not quite the same. Irving tries to bring them back, but it’s not the team working to enable him to lead them. Often in this series, the Bucks have looked like a team, while the Celtics just look like a bunch of guys who happen to be wearing the same uniforms.

Sure, being down 3-1 isn’t over. Two out of 110 lower-seeded teams have come back. Maybe the Celtics find another run of terrific basketball and pull off the miracle. But it doesn’t seem really likely. Not this group. Not with the way they play.

The New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox are both the defending champions. The Boston Bruins are legitimate title contenders. The Boston Celtics were supposed to complete the mythical “Boston Slam” of one city competing for the championship all at once. Instead, the Celtics are on the doorstep of being eliminated. In a city where the next banner is the only one that matters, just making the playoffs is not good enough. There are all sorts of reasons why it happened, but no one really cares. The Celtics aren’t up-and-comers anymore. Instead, they are title contenders who fell woefully short. There will be no Banner 18 this year. And there are serious questions about the future. That can, and will, all be dissected later, but for now, this one stings. Even if we should have seen it coming.