What to make of Celtics' loss in Milwaukee

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As much as no lead is safe in the NBA, it really looked like the Bucks were in position to coast past the Celtics on Thursday. Going into Milwaukee without Jaylen Brown (right thumb sprain) was a problem, but certainly not one that directly led to the Bucks scoring 76 points in the first half.

Milwaukee’s transition offense was a problem. They scored 28 fastbreak points in the first half, the most the Celtics have let up in a game — not just a half — this season.

Now, part of that is a result of Boston’s poor shooting in the first half. Having Giannis Antetokounmpo certainly helps Milwaukee, too.  But that was also a matter of the Celtics’ effort.

All in all, that was a major problem in the first half, Boston’s energy. Between the fastbreak points and the amount wide-open looks the Bucks had along the perimeter, it looked like someone made a mistake by slating Celtics-Bucks for national television.

The Greek Freak throws it down hard in #PhantomCam! #FearTheDeer--: @NBAonTNT pic.twitter.com/C7bTTpbJVr

— NBA (@NBA) January 17, 2020

Slow starts like that don’t matter against Atlanta or the Knicks — truthfully, the Celtics might even be able to get away with a rough first half against one of the lower-end Eastern Conference playoff teams — but that will not fly against contenders. Especially the Bucks.

And if the Celtics want to chalk up their tough first-half shooting to “shots didn’t fall,” that’s fine, but they have to find ways to compensate for that flaw so opponents don’t go into halftime with an 18-point lead.

Somehow, the Celtics didn’t lose by 18. They didn’t even lose by double-digits. Boston lost 128-123. (For a complete recap of the Celtics' loss, click here.)

Andddddd the Celtics cover ✅

— Winners Club (@WinnersClubPod) January 17, 2020

“That was more ‘Celtics basketball’ than we’ve seen in a while, in the second half. That was good. I was encouraged,” Brad Stevens told reporters. “But, obviously, you can’t give up 76 in the first.”

A few changes in the first half and all of Boston feels much different by the time the final buzzer sounded on Thursday.

But, of course, with a comeback like the one the C’s put together, there were a few positives.

Jayson Tatum MISDIRECTION! ----: @NBAonTNT pic.twitter.com/UX9vzo1per

— NBA (@NBA) January 17, 2020

For one, the Celtics shot better. That probably helped with their transition defense, too. Milwaukee didn’t score a single point on the fastbreak in the second half.

Walker had a double-double (40 points and 11 rebounds) and shot efficiently (14-for-23 shooting, 4-for-11 from deep, 8-for-9 at the free-throw line), scoring 16 points in the second half after scoring 24 in the second quarter.

Kemba Walker paces the @celtics with 24 2nd quarter PTS on @NBAonTNT. pic.twitter.com/c762g4ACYp

— NBA (@NBA) January 17, 2020

Marcus Smart did what he does on defense and actually shot 50% from three (5-for-10) and scored 24 points.

“This team is resilient,” Smart said. “Coming off a back-to-back night, we knew that it was going to be tough, but we didn’t want any excuses. So, just continue to fight and fight until we got to where we wanted and gave ourselves a chance at the end.”

While it may not be ideal for Smart to take 15 shots in a game, like he did on Thursday, he stepped up against the Bucks much like he did the last time the C’s faced Philly. Smart isn’t just trying to make a difference, he actually is — unlike Gordon Hayward, who only scored seven points on 1-for-10 shooting (1-for-9 from deep) on Thursday.

Hayward has to keep shooting, but he hasn’t been there when the Celtics have needed him in these big games.

In addition to the effort looking a lot better in the second half, Boston got some solid contributions from Daniel Theis and Semi Ojeleye on the defensive end.

Of course, Theis stuffed Antetokounmpo at the rim like few ever have. Another big in Boston would be ideal, but it’s clear Theis is part of the solution.

Theis got Giannis pic.twitter.com/oEuCDFjsa8

— Dan Greenberg (@StoolGreenie) January 17, 2020

Ojeleye showed he can help the Celtics handle Antetokounmpo. He’s not going to stop him, but he can slow the reigning MVP down a bit.

And as much as Ojeleye has gotten better with his shooting, the Celtics bench scoring is almost non-existent when Smart starts. Outside of Enes Kanter (nine points), no Celtics reserve was a threat to score in the slightest on Thursday.

But Boston could’ve mitigated that flaw if they simply started the game on the right foot.

“Games like this happen when you play against a really good team — a really great team,” Kemba Walker told reporters. “We just had to be ready. All these losses we’re going through are just lessons for us. It’s a very long season, still. We got so many games to play and when we have losses like this, we just have to learn and build from them. And I feel we will.”

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