There was a time when the Boston Celtics’ season seemed in danger of crumbling into a pile of fine dust. They had a losing record at the end of January. They were battling a series of injuries. There were questions about whether Jayson Tatum could co-exist with Jaylen Brown – was it time for the team to consider trading Brown? – as well as the inevitable criticism from Ime Udoka in his first season as manager.
It’s a familiar story at this late stage of the season, but one worth repeating, especially now. Why? Because Friday night, following a late-game meltdown earlier in the week, the Celtics faced elimination in Milwaukee. Outside their cocoon, as they prepared for Game 6, the questions swirled: Did they miss their chance? Could they somehow find the resolve to extend their Eastern Conference Semifinals streak with the Bucks?
The Celtics, however, seem to accept adversity. Maybe they’re conditioned to play their best when everyone thinks they’re done, a sandcastle about to be swept away by the sea. Down? Outside? Their sandcastle is apparently reinforced with steel beams, and they proved it with their 108-95 victory.
“It was a great moment for all of us,” Tatum said just minutes after posting one of the best individual performances in the NBA playoffs. “I think we’ve shown a lot of tenacity and growth.”
There was no doubt about it after Tatum finished with 46 points and 9 rebounds to help tie the series at three games apiece. In the process, he kind of eclipsed Giannis Antetokounmpo, who tried to drag the Bucks to the finish line with 44 points, 20 rebounds and 6 assists. It was a series that deserved Game 7, and the Celtics delivered. Game 7 is Sunday afternoon in Boston.
“I believe in everyone in this dressing room,” Tatum said. “We have what it takes.”
The Miami Heat, who ousted the Philadelphia 76ers from the playoffs on Thursday, are awaiting the winner of the Eastern Conference Finals, with the opener of that series scheduled for Tuesday. The Heat must have been thrilled to see the Celtics extend their streak with the Bucks: now those teams have time to bludgeon even more.
“You’ve got two behemoths getting into it,” Celtics’ Marcus Smart said. “We hit each other.”
The Celtics are grateful to be in this position after crashing in the fourth quarter of Game 5 on Wednesday. This match could have haunted them after losing a 14-point lead. Smart, in particular, was furious with himself for making a few late game blunders. He remembers going straight to the team’s training facility after the game and then turning around for two sleepless nights before Game 6.
“I feel like I let my team down,” he said.
The good news, Udoka said, was that the Celtics had played well in Game 5 – until they stopped playing well. The winning components were there. And they were exposed again in Game 6, this time for 48 minutes.
Smart was terrific, finishing with 21 points and 7 assists with no turnovers. Brown scored 22 points. And consider the contributions of Derrick White, a former Division II player and trade deadline acquisition who was all over the place in the final three minutes of the first half. He chained a 3-pointer with a short jumper. He fired a charging foul on Antetokounmpo. And then he had two free throws, taking the Celtics to a 10-point halftime lead.
But the reality was that Smart, Brown, and White were part of the supporting cast. The stage belonged to Tatum.
“He went into another mode,” Smart said. “We saw it in his eyes.”
From the start of the playoffs, when he christened the Celtics’ first-round series with the Nets with a game-winning layup, Tatum has set out to elevate his stature as one of the most fiercely skilled players of the league.
No, it has not been immune to the occasional breakage. In a close loss to Milwaukee in Game 3, he shot 4 of 19 from the field and missed all six of his 3-point attempts. But in the three games since, he’s averaged 36.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 47% from the field.
On Friday, Tatum played a brilliant all-around game. He did more than score. Coming out of a timeout in the third quarter, he stripped the Bucks’ Bobby Portis in the post, leading to a layup for Brown and a 17-point lead.
Tatum was also able to counter anything Antetokounmpo could throw at the Celtics, which was a lot. The Bucks were threatening in the fourth quarter when Antetokounmpo sank a 3-pointer. Tatum then scored the Celtics’ next 10 points, a flurry capped by a deep 3-pointer over the Bucks’ Pat Connaughton.
“Obviously I know when it’s going,” Tatum said. “You feel this rhythm.”
No one counts Milwaukee, of course. The Bucks are the defending champions and Antetokounmpo is capable of intergalactic prowess. But without the presence on the ground of Khris Middleton, an All-Star forward who was sidelined with a sprained left knee, Antetokounmpo had to do even more things Antetokounmpo than usual.
He clearly needs more help from his teammates on Sunday, especially against Tatum, a star in his own right.
Now, after a season of survival and growth, the Celtics see nothing but opportunity ahead of them.
“We still have a chance,” Udoka said, “to make it a better story.”