MILWAUKEE -- The first loss of the Wally Szczerbiak Era showed what happens when adrenaline runs low and thought overtakes instinct. It is one thing to arrive at an arena tired and hungry less than an hour before tipoff as he did Friday night, then ''just play basketball" as he did with friends growing up on Long Island. It is quite another to take the floor after one practice with your new teammates, try to remember the plays, and then execute in a close game.
From almost the opening minute of Boston's 83-79 loss to Milwaukee at the Bradley Center yesterday afternoon, Szczerbiak could be heard asking coach Doc Rivers questions. He huddled with point guards Delonte West and Orien Greene as the youngsters tried to explain plays. Rivers and the rest of the Celtics desperately wanted to involve Szczerbiak, as he played a team-high 41 minutes and took 15 shots, second only to Paul Pierce (18). But they may have forced some of the action on offense. There were miscues like the one where Raef LaFrentz attempted to pass to Szcerbiak with a chance to tie the game late in the fourth. Szczerbiak cut toward the low post. LaFrentz threw the ball toward the 3-point arc and it sailed out of bounds.
''My [Celtics] playbook consists of point, v, fist, invert, fist down, hammer," said Szczerbiak (a team-high 20 points). ''I'm just going to have to get better at when to attack, when not to attack, what my teammates like to do. It's totally different from what I've been playing in, but it's how I've always longed to play."
The education and integration of Szczerbiak helped explain why the Celtics shot 40 percent from the floor, even though they entered second in the league in field goal percentage (47.2 percent). It also helped explain why, despite a strong defensive effort (Milwaukee also shot 40 percent), Boston lost. With every possession counting down the stretch, it was not the best time to be figuring out plays and developing chemistry. But the Celtics were confident the experience would benefit them soon.
''Down the stretch, they made tough shots, but I'm really happy with our effort and with the way we played defense consistently throughout," said Pierce (18 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists). ''I told the guys. 'If we play like that for the rest of these games, we'll definitely get in the playoffs.' As time goes along, chemistry is going to come on the offensive side."
After entering halftime behind, 40-34, the Celtics trailed by just 1 point (57-56) at the start of the fourth. Boston fell behind by as many as 7 midway through the quarter, then rallied to make it a one-possession game. With 3 minutes 7 seconds remaining, the Celtics had a chance to tie the game when LaFrentz turned the ball over attempting to find Szczerbiak. It was one of just three turnovers the visitors committed in the second half. But, unfortunately, the ball found its way into the hands of Michael Redd, who had heated up. Redd scored 15 of his 21 points in the fourth, including a layup off the LaFrentz turnover. The next Redd basket was a 3-pointer that restored Milwaukee's 7-point advantage (79-72) with 1:29 left.
To the Celtics' credit, they continued to fight until the end. LaFrentz saved a ball from going out of bounds by flinging it over his head. It ended up with Szczerbiak, who banked in a 5-footer. Pierce hit a 3-pointer with 5.2 seconds left, bringing the Celtics within 2 (81-79) and giving them a last glimmer of hope. But the Celtics had trouble fouling on the Bucks' ensuing possession as T.J. Ford (15 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds) sent an outlet pass to Charlie Bell for a layup at the buzzer.
''We are trying to run more stuff and, more importantly, down the stretch you could see that we were just trying to create stuff on the fly," said Rivers. ''I think guys tried to make stuff happen, knowing that half the stuff we were running was not run very well. But if you still move the ball and swing it, it'll find a guy anyway. That's something we need to learn.
''I think Wally is comfortable with his teammates. I don't think he's comfortable with the system and all that. I think he really wanted change and this is the perfect change for him. Now, we've got to win with him. That would be the best part."
Szczerbiak figures it won't be long until he figures out how to play within the Celtics' system. At least tonight Boston will face a Minnesota team going through the same growing pains for the same reasons. But that will present other challenges for Szczerbiak and the rest of the Celtics. The first trip back to the Target Center for Szczerbiak since being traded to Boston last Thursday may be more emotionally, than mentally, taxing.