Celtics Notebook: Green coming up short against beasts in the East

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A 128-123 loss to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks was Boston’s second straight national TV defeat. While many observers scoff at the tedium of the NBA regular season, games of that caliber are the ones you circle on your desk calendar. They're supposed to be fun. They also offer an opportunity to play detective and to diagnose what may or may not be key factors should the teams cross paths again in the postseason. 

The setback drops the Celtics to 4-6 against the beef of the Eastern Conference: Milwaukee, Miami, Toronto, Indiana and Philadelphia. While that record is hampered by an ugly 0-3 mark against the Sixers and Thursday’s defeat without Jaylen Brown in the lineup, remember: the Celtics caught the Raptors without burgeoning All-Star Pascal Siakam, twice, managing just a 1-1 mark.

It’s becoming more evident that Boston’s hopes for playoff success are less about talent and more about matchups. Philly is a bad one. Miami and Toronto, while both well-coached squads, could be good ones. The jury is out on Indiana until the return of Victor Oladipo - who certainly delighted in tormenting Kyrie Irving while he was here. 

It might come down to shooting against the Bucks. Mike Budenholzer's club protects the rim at all costs, challenging teams to beat them from behind the arc. Had Brown played the other night and Gordon Hayward resembled a competent NBA marksman, perhaps the Celtics don’t have to dig out of a huge hole.

Then again, Antetokounmpo made just 10 of 20 free throw attempts and didn’t sink a single three-pointer (0-for-5). Even the MVP has off nights. And while he's below-average from anywhere beyond Tacko Fall's wingspan, he’s capable of inflicting more damage with his shot. Instead, he tallied 17 rebounds and dished out seven assists to teammates. Can the Celtics sell out defensively on the Greek Freak and still contain one-trick ponies like Brook Lopez and Donte DiVincenzo from deep?

Look at all these fascinating questions from a Thursday night game in the "dog days" of the NBA season.

After a promising start in measuring stick games (and yes, I know they lost to the Clippers in LA, but Bruins apologists would delight in the point for the OT defeat), the C’s have hit a bump in the road in the presence of Charles, Ernie, Kenny and Shaq. It's all part of a recent 2-5 swoon. Luckily, only the Bucks seem immune to the kinds of losses the Green have experienced of late, as just three games separate the second and sixth spots in the Eastern Conference standings.

Pivot Minute

Enes Kanter had a signature outing last Saturday against the Pelicans, throttling a Derrick Favors-less frontcourt to the tune of 22 points and 19 rebounds. He then started and logged a season-high 26 minutes against the Bulls in a game Daniel Theis missed due to injury. However, the big man saw his minutes cut way back in losses to Detroit and Milwaukee.

Even considering Lopez's aversion to actually grabbing a rebound, Boston couldn't get boards against the Bucks - usually a reason to summon Kanter to the scorer's table. But Kanter found himself overmatched defensively and the C's made their run with smaller personnel on the floor.

Here’s a look at the last four games for Boston's big men:

Enes Kanter: 13.0 points (73 percent shooting), 8.0 rebounds, one block, +2 in 20.2 minutes.

Daniel Theis: 9.0 points (60 percent shooting), 7.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, +8 in 21.8 minutes

As is custom, Semi Ojeleye got some run as a small ball five against the Bucks. Vincent Poirier returned to the floor this week, albeit for an uneventful five and a half minutes against the Bulls and Pistons.

Brad Stevens said this week that he doesn't anticipate Robert Williams returning until the All-Star break. As a note, the break falls after the trading deadline on the calendar next month.

Coming Up Next

It’s an interesting week ahead for the Green. 

The Suns visit the Garden on Saturday night. You might recall Phoenix guard Devin Booker torching the Celtics for 70 points in the same building two years ago. They also currently employ old friend Aron Baynes, who was key to their hot start and part of the reason they remain in the hunt for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. The Suns are no pushover; they’re a competent team.

On Monday, the Lakers make their only visit to TD Garden this season in yet another measuring stick game for the C’s. With Jaylen Brown questionable for Saturday, his presence would be welcomed Monday night, as a LeBron-sized problem requires a team effort.

Then, the Celtics face presumptive Rookie of the Year Ja Morant and a Grizzlies squad that has currently won seven straight, including upsets of the Clippers and Rockets. "Where is Ja?" He's averaging 19 points and 9 assists on 60 percent shooting during the streak.

Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. His Celtics notebook appears weekly on 985thesportshub.com. Talk C's with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.