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Celtics Have Nobody to Blame but Themselves

May 5, 2019

BOSTON -- It’s always easier to point the finger at someone else instead of yourself.

The Boston Celtics need to be careful not to fall into that dubious trap as they await a massively important Game 4 on Monday night that feels pretty darn close to a must-win situation.

The C’s find themselves in a 2-1 deficit not because of uncontrollable forces, also known as referees. They are in that spot because of themselves and their inability to get defensive stops.

Boston got beat by the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, 123-116, on Friday night in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal at TD Garden. The top-seeded Bucks took a 2-1 series lead in the best-of-seven and reclaimed homecourt advantage, and they did so in a manner that had the Celtics’ best player crying foul on the game’s referees.

Mainly, guard Kyrie Irving was displeased with the fact that Bucks superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo attempted 22 free throws (making 16) in the game, and took eight of those in the third quarter to help Milwaukee flip a one-point halftime deficit and take control in the final two quarters.

“Guy comes down almost six times in a row and gets free throws. What are you really going to do? It’s slowing the game down so the run that you would hope to make in a quarter like that, doesn’t happen,” said Irving. “I mean, he shot 22 on the game. It’s getting ridiculous at this point. It’s just slowing the (expletive) game down.”

In Irving’s defense, he was baited down that road by questions from reporters about the game’s officiating. He was actually asked at one point if he has ever personally been in a game where the officiating has been so poor on one side? Before answering, Irving smiled and did a brief half-laugh as if to symbolize the absurdity of that question.

Later in his postgame press conference, Irving showed accountability for himself and his team and delivered very honest answers. He even mentioned how he has to be a lot more efficient on the offensive end than his 8-for-22 effort in Game 3 and his 39.3 percentage from the floor in the series.

“I mean the refs have a difficult job. We have a difficult job,” said Irving. “Obviously, I could sit up here and complain. We know the disparity and what it is, but I am not going to put all the emphasis on the refereeing. I think there are a lot of controllable things on our end that we can be better at.”

By the sound of the seemingly endless boos directed toward the referees from the sellout crowd on Friday night, and the Green Teamers’ whining on social media, you would’ve thought the refs hijacked this game from Boston and that it was one of the great injustices in human history.

But guess what? The Bucks only attempted four more free throws than the Celtics’ 32, and the C’s 30 makes were six more than the Bucks made. The Bucks were whistled for 26 fouls, the Celtics were nailed with 27 fouls. This game was not lost because of officiating, and the refs were not the reason Boston surrendered 40 points in the third quarter.

The biggest problem for the Celtics is the relentless 6-foot-11 Greek Freak, who dominated in every facet of the game en route to a stat line of 32 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and three blocks. Antetokounmpo is now averaging 27.7 points in the series, after the C’s were praised so much for shutting him down in Game 1, when talk-radio hosts declared the series was “over.”

Yes, 22 free throws is high, but Antetokounmpo is a load to deal with and often times in this series the Celtics’ best bet will be to put him on the line and make him earn it. He’s only shooting 65 percent from the stripe in the playoffs.

“I’m just going to keep being aggressive. That is what my teammates want me to do. I’ve said that in the past, and that’s what I’m going to keep doing,” Antetokounmpo said. “I love getting to the free throw line, I’ve worked on it, I’m shooting my free throws with confidence, so it’s easy points for me and my teammates.”

Anyone who thought the Celtics would keep Antetokounmpo in check all series based on his poor Game 1 should’ve known better. Book it, he will get his numbers. What the Celtics need to do is make sure they control everyone else.

In Game 3, George Hill, a veteran backup point guard, erupted for 21 points off the bench on 9-for-12 shooting. Khris Middleton posted 20 points and is averaging 21.3 for the series. Pat Connaughton and Nikola Mirotic combined for seven made 3-pointers.

If all of that continues to happen, on top of Antetokounmpo’s inevitable huge production, Boston is in big trouble. And that has nothing to do with free throw disparity.

Boston has allowed 123 points in back-to-back games. That’s just plain bad defense, not bad officiating.

That better get cleaned up, or the C’s will be heading back to Milwaukee in a major hole.

“We just got to play better, that’s it,” said guard Jaylen Brown. “I don’t even know what to say. I’m looking forward to Game 4. We have too many good players, too many dogs in this locker room. We’re all looking forward to it and that’s the mind set.”

Follow Matt Langone on Twitter @MattLangone