BOSTON — Kyrie Irving signed up for this, for a chance to be the guy on a team and to lead the team beyond the second round of the NBA playoffs.
That doesn't mean Irving needs to score 40 points with 10 assists and five rebounds in Boston's next game.
But he needs to be better than he has been through the first three games of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Technically speaking, Game 4 between Boston and Milwaukee is not a must-win for the Celtics.
But after losing 123-116 to the Bucks in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series on Friday, the Celtics can’t afford to lose Game 4 and trail 3-1 in the series, giving Milwaukee a chance to close out the series at home.
Yes, we know all about teams coming back from a 3-1 deficit to win a series. But it’s still rare.
Boston needs to win Game 4 if it wants a chance of advancing to the conference finals.
And it starts with Irving. It’s not all on him. Celtics coach Brad Stevens and his staff have work to do. Irving’s teammates must play better, harder and with more focus.
In this series, Irving averages 21.3 points, seven assist, five rebounds and 1.3 steals. At quick glace, that's solid. But he's shooting 39.3% on from the field and 27.8% on three-pointers, and Boston has been outscored by 26 points with Irving on the court the past two games.
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He said after his nine-point performance in Boston’s Game 2 loss he had ideas how to better attack Milwaukee’s defense. But he was only marginally better with 29 points on 8-for-22 shooting from the field and 2-for-8 on 3-pointers in Game 3. The 11-for-12 mark from the foul line saved his stat line.
He made some noise in an ESPN article when he called himself a basketball genius. Irving is incredibly gifted, one of the best players in the league, and yes, he knows the game. He needs to use that IQ to solve the Bucks. This is when he needs to put his playoff knowledge together with his considerable talent.
“I’m confident in this group,” Irving said. “I’m confident in the talent that we have here as well as the basketball IQ. We just have to bring it to another level of being in the right spots and really focusing on where we can take advantage on their defensive miscues. … We just have to do better.”
Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving hands the ball to an official during the second half of Game 3. (Photo: Bob DeChiara, USA TODAY Sports)
The Celtics bench didn’t produce offense, Boston didn’t slow down Milwaukee All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo’s powerful, snaking drives to the basket and failed to limit the Bucks’ 3-point shooting, especially in the Bucks' 40-point third quarter.
“That’s not a characteristic you want to carry over into the next game,” Irving said. “We’ll be better. We’ll need a little more from our bench, a little bit more consistency from me going to the basket as well as the three-point line.”
Boston wasn’t happy about the officiating on Friday. Celtics coach Brad Stevens likes his money so he’s not going to complain about the officiating and incur a fine for public criticism of referees.
Stevens came close at least once to receiving a technical foul, and Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was T’d up for complaining about a call early in the fourth quarter when Milwaukee’s lead had ballooned to 10 points.
There was a 58-second stretch in which Antetokounmpo shot six free throws, and he ended up at the line 22 times.
“Guy comes down almost six times in a row and get free throws,” Irving said. “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. I mean, he shot 22 on the game. It’s getting ridiculous at this point.”
If Boston – which shot 32 and made 30 free throws to Milwaukee’s 24-for-36 – doesn’t want to see a parade of Milwaukee trips to the foul line, better defense is required. Rediscover the success it had in Game 1.
The Bucks took control of the series, and it seems they have figured out how to attack Boston. Yet, while it seems Milwaukee has the momentum, all it takes is a Boston victory in Game 4 to change the complexion of the series.
Plenty is at stake for the Celtics, including Irving's long-term status with the team, and it remains to be seen how the result of Boston’s season impacts its future.
All that matters now is Game 4.
“There are a lot of controllable things on our end,” Irving said, “that we can be better at.”
What will he bring to the court?
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