The Boston Celtics took down the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night, earning a 119-116 victory. But while the Celtics won in wire-to-wire fashion, the Bucks gave them a scare at the end of the fourth quarter, quickly cutting a 16-point lead down to a one-possession game in under four minutes.
Big-time shots from Damian Lillard and Khris Middleton helped Milwaukee whittle down Boston’s double-digit lead. They scrapped and clawed their way through the second half just to give themselves a chance.
“It’s hard to guard teams like that at the end of the game when, you’re right, it feels like we’re letting it off a little bit, and they’re like in urgency mode,” said Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla. “And so, we got to fight to be in urgency mode as well.”
Boston led by as many as 21 points against the Bucks, and they also held double-digit leads against the Charlotte Hornets, Memphis Grizzlies, and Toronto Raptors in their prior three games. All of those were flipped into one-possession games by the end, too.
On paper, the Celtics’ lack of closing ability has become a problem. And that’s because it is. But it’s not one that always stems from poor effort.
Against the Hornets, the Celtics’ effort was a primary source for their lackluster late-game execution. Mazzulla even benched his starters at one point because of it. But effort isn’t always the culprit when blowing leads. Oftentimes, it’s simply the Celtics letting their natural instincts get the best of them.
“As you feel them going on a run, the pressure starts to build up, and then some of those shots don’t go in the way they went in,” said Jaylen Brown.
By halftime against the Bucks, the Celtics were up by 14. At that point, Milwaukee entered survival mode. They had two options: Keel over and accept defeat or do anything and everything within their power to fight back.
And so, they fought back. The Bucks turned up their intensity, played with more physicality, and, to a degree, threw the gameplan out the window.
Meanwhile, the Celtics naturally felt that pressure. They sensed the Bucks’ relentlessness, and in response, they began to fight back. But not in the same way. Boston was fighting to stay afloat rather than fighting to survive.
“As a player, I don’t feel like it,” said Kristaps Porzingis when asked if he feels the Celtics have been taking their foot off the gas. “But maybe we can execute a little bit better [when] the pressure is up.”
With the Celtics’ consistent ability to jump out to big leads, this is a common occurrence. Boston didn’t wilt against Milwaukee, they just got caught on the wrong side of a team that no longer had anything to lose. It was a case of human nature — emotions getting the best of them, not necessarily poor effort.
“I felt like tonight was what we were [in] the first 10-11 games before the road trip,” said Mazzulla. “Where we were playing with high effort, and we were playing with connectivity, and we showed moments of great execution.
“And as long as we play hard and as long as we’re connected, we can constantly get better at the execution piece. And I saw that tonight, and I didn’t see that in the few games prior.”
At the end of the Celtics’ game, while the team’s effort was clear, their execution was what failed. Throughout the entire game, the ball was popping, guys were making plays for each other, and the defense was connected. But in the final few minutes, once the Bucks entered survival mode, everything changed.
The Celtics brought the ball up the court slower and tried to bleed out the shot clock, possessions turned into iso-first slogs, and the defense felt more frantic than together. If anything, their effort and desire to win was too excessive. They started pressing the issue, and subsequently, their plans went out the window.
The end result was exactly what they were trying to avoid: A Bucks comeback.
“I think either way, you have to be able to do both,” said Mazzulla. “We didn’t execute the need situation when it was a six-point game. We’re looking to not give up an open shot there and foul to make it a two-possession game and just didn’t execute it.”
Milwaukee got an open shot when the Celtics’ goal was to foul and maintain their lead via free throws. Against the Hornets, Jrue Holiday missed a dunk when he could have held the ball and went to the line. Little details are being missed in the heat of the moment because other teams are putting the pressure on Boston.
And for as talented as the Celtics are, the NBA is the best league in the world. Every team has talent, and every team has players capable of making plays when the lights are brightest.
When those players are on, they are near-impossible to stop.
“These teams also made some big shots,” said Porzingis. “Charlotte made some big shots at the end. Dame made some things happen towards the end. So, against the talented teams, it can get dangerous. You can hit two big shots, and it can get dangerous towards the end. So, we just have to stay poised.”
Opponents’ position as the team in survival mode is not an excuse for the Celtics to leave the door open for comebacks. The best teams shut it before their rivals even make it to the welcome mat. Throughout the course of an 82-game season, however, that’s not an easy task.
In each of their last five games, the Celtics have allowed a double-digit lead to be reduced to a one-possession game in the final quarter. Stars have made big play after big play, dragging their teams back into games against Boston.
Ultimately, the Celtics are 4-1 in those games. More importantly, they understand the difference between a lack of effort and a lack of execution, and they know what they need to improve upon moving forward.