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Tuesday night saw the Boston Celtics traveling to the Bradley Center to take on the Milwaukee Bucks. It was the debut game for new Celtic Michael Finley (five points in eight minutes of play). Both the Bucks and the Celtics had been playing well recently, and both were clearly in the playoff picture. One would expect a good game from two teams such as these, and that’s exactly what one got. There were double-digit ties and lead changes in this game, minimal turnovers (15 apiece), and some high-energy defense. In the end, the Bucks went on one run more than the Celtics did, and beat Boston, 86-84.
The big story of the night offensively was the Boston bench. They put up a combined 29 points, as compared to the mere 8 put up by the Milwaukee bench. The Boston starters had their fair share of stars as well. Rajon Rondo put up a pretty little 20-point game, while Kevin Garnett put up a double-double, scoring 14 while rebounding 10.
It wasn’t as if energy was the problem for the Celtics against Milwaukee, at least not offensively. They outscored the Bucks on fast-break points 28-3, and it never seemed like they were really lagging behind. The problem lay more in the starters’ sluggish shooting. While Rondo and KG played fine, Paul Pierce really only got it going from the free-throw line (where the Celtics held a 19-10 advantage), and the other two starters never got started at all. When starting shooting goes cold, no matter how well the bench plays, you’re going to lose.
The biggest critique of the Celtics defense was that they had no answer for Bucks center Andrew Bogut. Bogut led all scorers in the game with 25 points, and he had 17 rebounds to go with them. All night long the Celtics defense experimented with various double-teams and traps, but Bogut was just too big and strong. He was especially strong in situations where he was playing against a Boston bench player. In one particularly memorable play, he backed Glen Davis all the way to the ground, then turned around and dunked on him. Davis looked over-matched and over-powered against the larger, more experienced, and stronger Andrew Bogut.
This was a preview of a potential first-round playoff match for the Celtics, and it did not go the Celtics’ way. They looked sluggish at the start of all four quarters, allowing Milwaukee to build momentum across each period. This slow-start habit of the Celtics is one they can ill-afford if they want to go far in the playoffs. Milwaukee is about at the level of play the C’s should expect come the first round: high energy, some good shooting, quality defense.
The Celtics were able to match the Bucks for three and a half quarters, but then the starters failed to hold it down for the win. It’s hard to look at this game and point to the one factor that killed the team. It would seem Boston’s biggest problem is just the chemistry of its starters. They’re still not playing like a seasoned, congealed unit, the way you would expect this late in the season. If they can’t start well and they can’t finish well, it doesn’t matter how well they play in the middle: they’re going to lose games.
This match was a measuring stick game, allowing the team to gauge how ready it is for the playoffs. And the sad answer is that it’s not quite ready yet. Wednesday the Celtics return home to face Memphis, a team looking to move into playoff contention on Boston’s back. The starters will have to rally from this loss and rally quickly, or they may find themselves slipping further down the playoff ladder.