What a difference a year makes.
On April 28, 2018, the Boston Celtics eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks from the playoffs in a Game 7 where Al Horford and Terry Rozier each stepped up with 26 points. It was a relatively easy Celtics win at home.
Out of that game and the ensuing playoff run, Boston became a team on the rise. They were the preseason favorites in the East after getting Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back from injury, adding them to a roster that had shown great chemistry in the postseason. On the other side, Milwaukee had questions — starting with could they keep Giannis Antetokounmpo happy — and opted for a major change, letting go of coach Jason Kidd and bringing in Mike Budenholzer, plus adding some shooting to the roster. Milwaukee entered this season still feeling at least a year, maybe more, away.
Wednesday night May 8, 2019, the Milwaukee Bucks easily eliminated the Boston Celtics from the playoffs in five games, sealing the deal at home in a 116-91 blowout.
The Bucks — who grew into the best regular season team in the NBA out of last year’s lessons — advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, hosting either the Toronto Raptors or Philadelphia 76ers (Toronto leads that series 3-2).
Boston went down without a fight. That was true in Game 5 but also for most of the series. When faced with adversity the Celtics became a team of individuals that lacked genuine effort or trust for teammates. — the polar opposite of the team that made the conference finals a season ago.
This loss sends the Celtics into a summer where it is the team facing big questions about chemistry and fit, not to mention the future of free agent to be Kyrie Irving. (Al Horford also has a player option and there are other major roster decisions.) One way or another, it feels like Boston’s roster will look very different next training camp. Irving, who at a ticket holder event early in the season said he would be back if the Celtics fans would have him, now is going to at least look at his options this summer, according to the buzz around the NBA. (Talk about him leaving Boston has grown louder as these playoffs have worn on.)
That is just the start of the roster questions about a Celtics’ team that all season lacked cohesion and trust, and in the playoffs that came back to embarrass them.
This series was a total role reversal. Milwaukee eliminated Boston in game 5 the way the Celtics eliminated them a year ago — defense and good team play.
The Bucks held the Celtics to an offensive rating of 86 (well below a point per possession) while shooting 25 percent in the first half and 31.2 percent for the game, although that was as much about Boston’s desire as it was anything Milwaukee did. The Bucks used their length to contest shots in the paint — the Bucks shot 6-of-19 in the paint for the first half — and still get into passing lanes.
Part of the problem with the Celtics’ offense started with Irving and his desire to play hero ball, which played into the hands of the Bucks’ defense. Irving shot 7-of-22 in Game 4 and said of that “I should have shot 30.” Well, in the first half he shot 5-of-16, had zero assists, and his Celtics were down by 11. Irving finished the game 6-of-21 from the floor for 15 points.
On the other end of the court, the Bucks had a balanced attack. Antetokounmpo led the way with 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists.
However, Antetokounmpo had only had 6 points on 2-of-6 shooting in the first half, the Bucks took charge of the game because his teammates stepped up. Khris Middleton had 19 points and 8 rebounds for the game, Eric Bledsoe had 18 points, and George Hill had another impressive night off the bench with 16 points.
The Bucks are going to need that kind of balance in the next round, but they looked like a team that has grown a lot in the last year — their time is now.
Boston players can watch those games from their hotel rooms in Cancun, while they ponder their future.