Something a little different today. I won’t sit here and berate a team that has been slugging it out all week under difficult circumstances. Instead, I’m going to take a more holistic approach to these takeaways.
#1 The Celtics have been running a gauntlet
Five games between Friday, Jan 5, and Thursday, Jan. 11.
That’s how many times we’ve watched the Boston Celtics in the past week. Four of those games were back-to-backs. The Celtics were the traveling team for both of those second games. First, they flew from Boston to Indiana. Then, they flew from Boston to Milwaukee. Sure, these are short flights. However, you finish a game and hop onto a plane before playing the next night.
Eventually, when faced with a schedule like that, your energy is going to run out. These are human beings we’re talking about. Yes, their conditioning is at an elite level. Yes, they’re paid a lot of money to do their job. And yes, they’re living out a dream life that many of us have envisioned at one point or another.
None of that matters, though. The fact is, humans get tired, regardless of their conditioning. The body needs time to recover, and five games in seven days with travel on both back-to-backs isn’t conducive to getting the best out of your stars on the back end of that stretch.
#2 Joe Mazzulla made the right call
Pulling the starters at half-time wasn’t Joe Mazzulla signaling surrender. It was the head coach of a contending team recognizing the situation. His team was tired. When you’re tired and worn down, there’s a greater risk of injury.
Mazzulla’s decision also gave the bench rotation additional time on the court, which will only help build some continuity within the system and keep them engaged. This wasn’t a garbage time contest, to begin with; those bench guys got some run against the Bucks's starting lineup. That must have felt great for them. You know, except for the scoreline.
#3 No energy from the opening tip
The writing was on the wall from the opening tip. This Celtics team has built their foundation on high-energy defense. Rotations are crisp and sharp. Players sprint on close-outs; they switch with pace and purpose.
Not on Thursday.
The energy was missing from the jump. That’s ok, but it was very clear that there were some heavy legs out there.
From the first play of the game, it was pretty clear the Celtics didn't have it. Energy was flat, execution and decision making pace a step slow.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) January 12, 2024
2nd night of a back-to-back, with overnight travel, after an OT win over the 1st seed in the WC. Yeah, it is what it is. Not worried
#4 Nothing went right
Sometimes, things just don’t go your way. And sometimes, everything goes exactly how you planned it. That was the juxtaposition Boston faced against the Milwaukee Bucks. Everything Milwaukee touched turned into gold, and everything Boston touched, well, you get the idea.
The Celtics shot 25.7% from 3-point range, Milwaukee shot 42.9%. Boston hit 37.4% of their field-goal shots, and Milwaukee converted at a 56.5% clip. Boston had 31 boards; the Bucks had 54. The list goes on and on.
Again, a lot of this can be put down to the Celtics's lack of rest, the tired legs, and the fact Milwaukee was coming off a two-day break and clearly had a point to prove — both to themselves and to the Celtics.
That’s fine because...
#5 We will see Milwaukee again
And when we do, things should be far more even, and the Celtics will have a score to settle. Tired or not, this loss would have hurt everybody's pride. There’s something about getting blown out by a direct division rival that brings out a different level of competitiveness, and the Bucks will have to withstand that the next time these two teams play.
The downside? We will have to wait until March to get the rematch. Anything can happen between now and then. Still, our only hope is that both teams are fully healthy. The good news is that neither team will be on a back-to-back for this game; the Bucks will be faced with a loud TD Garden crowd and a roster that has a score to settle.
Mark your calendars, ladies and gentlemen; this one will be a real slugfest.
#6 No need to overreact
This takeaway will be like the rest of them: short but sweet.
It’s a loss. You take it and move on. It’s also a loss with context attached to it. It wasn’t that the team couldn’t be bothered to play or were out partying a little too hard the night before. Instead, it was a loss that you could understand. A loss that you could accept.
#7 The bench mob
We got to see a lot of these guys. This season, we’ve been pretty spoiled. Usually, when Mazzulla empties the bench, it’s because the Celtics have been dominating, and the game is over. Not this time. Instead, we got to see what the deeper bench rotation could do when trying to chase down a lead against one of the most talented teams in the NBA.
It went how you would expect it to go. Things looked good for the first few minutes of the third quarter. The Celtics strung together a little run; there was some intrigue as to how Mazzulla would divvy up his rotation minutes. And then, the Bucks turned the pressure back up.
Still, we got a better look at Dalano Banton, Lamar Stevens, and Svi Mykahiliuk, and of course, we got some Neemy minutes, which is always fun and interesting. The downside, later in the game, when the Bucks emptied their bench, we were forced to watch Thanasis Antetokounmpo and that was not an enjoyable experience.
#8 Big minutes for Pritchard
I liked seeing Pritchard get the chance to play big minutes. I would have preferred it to come during a competitive game where he can learn from the experience. Still, he was one of the Celtics better performers on the night, even if he was also suffering from the three-point struggles Boston found themselves facing.
Pritchard brings a certain tempo to the game. He can create things with his speed and off-ball movement courtesy of his shooting gravity. And he defends his tail off. Late in the second quarter, he was mismatched with Bobby Portis and was jostling for position against a bigger, stronger player. Pritchard didn’t back down, though. Eventually, Kristaps Porzingis rotated over to scram him out of there.
I liked that fight. I liked how even down by like, 30, Pritchard was still digging in and putting in the hard yards. It would have been so easy to sag off and wait for Portis to face up and shoot over him.
It is possessions like that remind you that even when his shot isn’t falling, Pritchard can find ways to be impactful. Shout out to Sam Hauser, too; he was solid all night and managed to drop four of the Celtic's nine threes.
#9 A wider-ranging thought
I don’t think we give Jayson Tatum enough credit for the improvements he’s made as a passer out of the pick-and-roll. This type of pass, with two defenders pressuring you, is elite. Tatum’s ability to consistently make smart reads out of traps, blitzes, and hedges has become a core part of his overall skillset, and oftentimes, it’s easy to forget the growing pains we watched him go through to get to the level he’s at now.
#10 Here’s a highlight to brighten your day.
The Celtics are back in action on Saturday. They will be facing the Houston Rockets, which also means the return of Ime Udoka to the TD Garden. It will be interesting to see how the team responds to their loss against the Bucks and how they deal with facing Ime for the first time.
Lot’s to dissect over the weekend! Until then! Have a great day, and I’ll catch you on Sunday!