BOSTON (CBS) — Even after the Celtics ripped off an incredible stretch of basketball in the second half of the regular season, they still had their doubters. Sure, Boston was one of the best teams in the league after the new year, but lots of folks questioned if they had what it took to keep that going in the playoffs.
So far this postseason, they’ve risen to every challenge thrown their way. A first-round sweep of the Nets was impressive, but their seven-game series win over the Bucks outdid that performance. Beating Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champs is exactly what the Boston core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart needed to do to prove that they’re not only ready, but that they can win on the big stage.
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Even with Brown and Smart set to play in their fourth Eastern Conference Finals, and Tatum his third, there are still doubters. But they’re getting harder to hear after this series win over the Bucks. Tatum had his moment in Game 6. Brown picked his spots and had his stretches throughout the series. Smart outplayed Jrue Holiday throughout the second round, despite most of his haters and doubters still banging the drum that he isn’t a true floor general.
The Celtics aren’t done yet, because they haven’t really won anything yet. Not when the ultimate goal is to add to Boston’s vast collection of banners.
But besting the Bucks in seven games, after trailing three times in the series, is this core’s definitive moment — at least for now. Beating the Miami Heat to reach their first NBA Finals would obviously replace the accomplishment, but we’re probably two weeks away from learning if they’re ready to get over that hump.
For now, we’ll take what we’ve got. And thus far, watching the Celtics rise up to any challenge that has come their way this postseason has been incredibly gratifying.
Remember when the Celtics were laughed at for not tanking the end of the regular season to avoid the Nets in the first round? They answered that by sweeping Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving out of the playoffs.
That was impressive, but then the naysayers doubted that the Celtics could keep it going against the defending champion Bucks. A second-round matchup with Giannis Antetokounmpo would be too much for Boston — even with Khris Middleton unavailable for Milwaukee.
And for a few stretches, that looked to be the case. The Celtics lost Game 1 in blowout fashion, and after winning Game 2 in Boston, blew a chance to steal Game 3 to fall into a 2-1 series hole. After taking Game 4 in Milwaukee thanks to a massive game by Al Horford, the Celtics coughed up a 14-point lead on their home court in Game 5. The vultures started to circle.
But the Celtics weren’t about to quit. No way. Even in a 3-2 series hole, they felt that they had outplayed the Bucks to that point.
That series deficit was just another mountain for the Celtics to climb, another hurdle to cross. Adversity? Bring it on. Ime Udoka predicted that Boston’s crushing loss in Game 5 would make the comeback story all the sweeter. And he was right.
The Celtics were adamant that they would turn the page quickly from that loss and they were hungry to sink their teeth into that challenge. A whole different team took the floor for Game 6, and Tatum exploded for his defining performance in a Celtics uniform, scoring 46 points in Milwaukee to stave off elimination and force a Game 7 back in Boston.
“I believe in the work that we’ve put in and the work that I’ve put in. I was excited for that challenge, down 3-2 with our backs against the wall, on the road against a great team. To get a must-win game, I was excited for that,” Tatum said Sunday after Game 7. “I was looking forward to that challenge and stepping up to that. I believe in myself and I believe in this team.”
On Sunday, the Celtics kept it going by thoroughly dominated the Bucks for a 109-81 trouncing. They rained down threes, going 22-for-55 from downtown to outscore Milwaukee 66-12 from behind the arc. Even with a Giannis on your team, that is an impossible discrepancy to overcome, especially with the Boston defense continuing to play at a high level.
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Grant Williams led the way for Boston in that Game 7 victory, because Game 7s need an unlikely hero. But Tatum (23 points, eight assists), Brown (19 points, eight rebounds), and Smart (11 points, 10 assists) made it all go. Milwaukee’s focus on Tatum and Brown left Williams open to do his damage (27 points, 7-for-18 from three). Everyone kept hunting and found the open man with the best look.
That, along with smothering defense, has been the Celtics’ route to success all season. That is what Udoka has preached throughout his first year as a head coach, and it has Boston back in the Conference Finals.
“We’re a team. We win as a team and we lose as a team,” Brown said after Game 7. “I know the storylines make it sound like a 1-on-1 matchup or a 2-on-2 matchup, but we have to come out and play Celtics basketball and win any way we can. We showed our versatility and we can win in a multitude of ways. Al had a big game, Grant had a great game. That’s what it takes. A full team effort on offense and defense. That’s great Celtics basketball right there.”
While Boston’s leading trio has shown they can be leaders in the box score, the question was whether they could be leaders off the floor. With comments like Brown’s, littered with the word “we”, it shows that he and Tatum understand that they can’t just lead with their scoring — they have to be leaders with their words and actions as well. We’ve seen that, and much more, over the last five months.
“It’s another feather in their cap,” Udoka said of his core group after Game 7. “Great for us to battle back the way we did. This is why we played the season out to get home court. The basketball gods were in our favor and we played the way we did the second half of the season, where we we’re not afraid of anybody.”
Everything came together for Boston in Game 7, much like it all came together in January. Sunday’s win has the Celtics four wins away from a trip to the NBA Finals, a promised land that their core has yet to reach.
In beating the Nets and the Bucks so far this postseason, the Celtics have dispatched two of the last three teams that ended their previous playoff runs; the Nets in the first round in 2021 and the Bucks in the second round in 2019. The third is, fittingly, the Miami Heat.
Now we get a rematch of the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Heat sent the Celtics home from the NBA bubble in six games. That was this core’s best chance at making a finals and winning a title, and the then-favored Celtics let it slip away.
They’ve learned a lot and they’ve grown even more since that series. And so far this postseason, they’ve overcome whatever adversity has come their way. This next matchup will be met with the same excitement as previous challenges.
“Another extremely physical team and well-coached. Just looking forward to it,” Tatum said of the Heat. “Excited being back in this position and to try to get over this hump.”
Brown said that the physical seven-game battle against Milwaukee has the Celtics prepared for another bruising series against Miami.
“We can’t shy away from that challenge. I think [the series with Milwaukee] prepared us for what is next,” he said. “[Miami is] a team full of dogs, guys who aren’t going to give up or give you anything. Not an inch.
“We have to go out and play with poise and the same mindset to fight,” he said. “I expect nothing less than a great battle.”
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Part of this team’s growth is that, as gratifying as the current playoff run has been, the Celtics are not satisfied. While they’ll celebrate a great series win over the defending champs, that party won’t last long. Not with a few more “defining moments” to add to their list this summer.
Source : https://boston.cbslocal.com/2022/05/15/celtics-core-tatum-brown-smart-statement-series-win-bucks-nba-playoffs/