How will Celtics respond against Bucks after getting punched in the mouth?

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Forsberg: How will Celtics respond after getting punched in the mouth? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

It’s been a while since someone punched the Boston Celtics in the mouth.

You’d have to rewind to the end of February to find Boston’s last double-digit loss. And even that was the second night of a road back-to-back without Boston’s full starting lineup available in Indiana.

You’d have to go back another month before that to find the last real butt-whooping this Celtics’ core endured with a 16-point loss in Atlanta. The last time the Celtics lost by double-digits at home was way back on Nov. 24, 2021 against a Brooklyn team they just swept out of the playoffs.

Celtics-Bucks takeaways: C's offense stifled by Milwaukee in Game 1 loss

But the Milwaukee Bucks, dripping with the swagger of a defending champion, stormed into TD Garden on Sunday and landed a haymaker on the jaw of a Celtics team whose bandwagon was overflowing after its recent success.

Ime Udoka, ever slow to sub out his starters even when a game is decidedly in hand, emptied his bench with two minutes to go and the Celtics down 14. Marcus Smart was already hobbling around the court and there was no chance Boston’s anemic offense was going to fuel a late charge as the Bucks emerged with a 101-89 triumph in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series.

It feels impossible that the Celtics will play as poorly as they did, offensively, again in this series. But the Bucks didn’t exactly reinvent the defensive wheel in this one. They packed the paint, challenged Boston to shoot 3s, and made the Celtics every bit as uncomfortable as Kevin Durant and Co. felt last round against Boston.

The Celtics will make adjustments. The bigger question is whether they can dust themselves off, mentally, after the Bucks delivered quite a tone-setter to this series.

"Tonight they had a chip on their shoulder, they came in with an edge, they were locked in. And they punched us in the mouth," said Jaylen Brown, who said his hamstring is fine, but didn’t look himself while having nearly twice as many turnovers (7) as field goals made (4). Brown was a minus-12 in 38 minutes of floor time.

"They definitely were pressuring us and making it hard for us to get into our stuff," Brown said. "But, as we watch, there are ways to be efficient and be effective. We will find them and we’ll be a lot more aggressive when needed to be for the next game."

Much was made about how the Bucks downshifted late in the season and settled for the No. 3 seed, which gave Boston homecourt in the second round. And in the span of 48 minutes, Milwaukee made it a moot point by stealing homecourt with the Game 1 triumph.

Celtics narrowly avoid wrong kind of history with 2-point shooting vs. Bucks

You’d have to rewind to the 2017 playoffs to find the last time the Celtics won a series after dropping Game 1. Boston fell in Games 1 and 2 against the Bulls but, aided by Gerald Green's surprise elevation to starter and carried by an emotional Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics stormed back to win that series in six games.

Much of this core was intact back in 2019 when the Celtics won Game 1 against Milwaukee but then watched the Bucks win four straight (albeit, a heavy dose of Checked Out Kyrie at play there).

So what happens next? Will the Celtics swing back in Game 2?

"Just be ready," said Jayson Tatum, who didn’t get his first field goal until there was 6:38 remaining before halftime and finished with 21 points on 6 of 18 shooting over 40 minutes. "Be ready to come back, play better, play tougher, come in and get a win. That’s how I think we’re gonna respond."

So often during their second-half surge, the Celtics have had an answer for when things go bad. The Celtics were the best third quarter team in the NBA this season. Udoka seemed to find the counter to anything that conspired against his team.

But the Celtics had few answers on Sunday. More concerning, Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t even have a very efficient night and still put up a 24-point, 13-rebound, 12-assist triple-double. He was plus-23 in 38 minutes and the Celtics couldn’t even really take advantage of the foul trouble he found late in the third quarter.

The Celtics can clean up their turnovers. They can shoot better overall. But they can’t be as discouraged at attacking the basket as they looked any time Brook Lopez was around the hoop. Jrue Holiday and his perimeter pals are unlikely to tone down the pressure after Milwaukee routinely picked up full court.

But, for the first time in a while, the Celtics find themselves having to figure things out. It’s not an overstatement to suggest that Game 2 becomes a bit of a must-win given the talent that Milwaukee possesses.

"We’ve been resilient all year," Brown said. "This is just a testament to what we have experienced throughout the season, the ups and downs. We’ve experienced highs and lows. This group is tested so we just got to come out, keep our confidence, keep our faith in each other, don't lose our trust, stay connected, execute the game plan, and it’ll work out.

"We just got to be mentally strong and things will be fine."

There is a value in remembering not to overreact to one game. Road teams that roll in Game 1 are not always able to sustain that success (an example from this year: Minnesota’s 13-point win over Memphis). The counter argument here is that it feels a bit more significant when it's the defending champions with maybe the best two-way player on the planet that dominate Game 1 on the road.

The Celtics were always going to be challenged in this series. Now even more so. The Bucks set the tone and stole home court. Boston has to respond with a message that suggests it wasn’t indicative of how this series will play out.