At one time the Boston Celtics season seemed to be in danger of falling into a pile of fine dust. They lost the record at the end of January. They were shaking at several wounds. There were questions as to whether Jayson Tatum could live with Jaylen Brown: was it time for the team to study Brown’s exchange? – Ime Udokari along with the inevitable criticisms of his first season as coach.
History is well known at this stage of the season, but it’s worth repeating, especially now. Why? On Friday night, as a result of a late game earlier in the week, the Celtics were facing a Milwaukee playoff game. Outside their lair, as they prepared for Game 6, questions circulated: Did they miss the opportunity? Did they somehow find the decision to extend the Eastern Conference semifinal series with Bucks?
The Celtics, however, seem to be taking on misfortunes. Perhaps they are conditioned to play in the best condition when everyone else thinks they have finished, a sand castle to take to the sea. Down? out? Their sand castle is reinforced with steel beams, and they proved this by winning 108-95.
“This was a great moment for everyone,” Tatum said just minutes after assembling one of the best individual performances of the NBA season. “I think we’ve shown a lot of toughness and growth.”
There was no doubt that Tatum finished with 46 points and 9 rebounds to tie the series in three games. In the process, Giannis Antetokounmpo somehow overshadowed him, trying to drag Bucks across the finish line with 44 points, 20 rebounds and 6 assists. It was a series that deserved the seventh game, and it was given by the Celtics. Game 7 is on Sunday evening in Boston.
“I believe in everyone in that locker room,” Tatum said. “We have everything we need.”
The Miami Heat, who were eliminated by the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday from the postseason, are awaiting a winner in the Eastern Conference Finals, with the opening game set for that series set for Tuesday. The Heat must have been thrilled to see the Celtics extend the series with the Bucks: now these teams have time to hit each other a little more.
“You’ve introduced two juggernaut,” Celtic Marcus Smart said. “We’re hitting each other.”
The Celtics are grateful to be in this position after falling in the fourth quarter of Game 5 on Wednesday. That game could have been disappointing after a 14-point lead. Smart, in particular, was angry with himself for making a couple of late gaffe matches. He recalled that he went straight to the team’s training facility after the game, and then spent two sleepless nights before the 6th game.
“I feel like I’ve lost my team,” he said.
The good news, Udoka said, was that the Celtics played well in Game 5 until they stopped playing well. There were the winning ingredients. And they were on display again in the 6th game, this time for 48 minutes.
Smart was tremendous, finishing with 21 points and 7 assists without a hitch. Brown scored 22 points. And consider the contributions of Derrick White, the former Second Division player and the acquisition of a trade period that was everywhere in the last three minutes of the first half. He followed the 3rd with a short jump. Antetokounmpo was fouled. And then he made two free throws, giving the Celtics a 10-point lead at the break.
But the reality was that Smart, Brown and White were part of the support team. The stage was Tatumena.
“It went the other way,” Smart said. “We saw it in his eyes.”
Since the start of the playoffs, when he was baptized with the Nets in the first round of the Celtics series with a layup that won the game, Tatum has embarked on his business to rise as one of the most skilled players in the league.
No, he is no exception to the occasional round of applause. In game 3 in a close loss to Milwaukee, he threw 4 of 19 from the field and lost six of his 3-point attempts. But in all three games, he averaged 36.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 47 percent from the field.
On Friday, Tatum played a very great game. He scored more than one goal. Out of a time limit in the third quarter, Bucks removed Bobby Portis from the post and scored a 17-point lead against Brown.
Tatum was able to deal with everything that Antetokounmp could throw at the Celtics, and that was a lot. The Bucks were threatening in the fourth quarter when Antetokounmp sank a 3-pointer. Tatum scored the next 10 points for the Celtics, finishing a 3-point deep over the Bucks ’Pat Connaughton.
“Of course I know when I do,” Tatum said. “You feel that rhythm.”
No one tells Milwaukee, of course. Bucks are defending champions, and Antetokounmpo is capable of intergalactic feats. But without the presence of Khris Middleton, an All-Star striker sidelined with a sprained left knee, Antetokounmp has had to do even more than usual.
He clearly needs more support from his teammates on Sunday, especially against the likes of Tatum, who is himself a star.
Now, after a season of survival and growth, the Celtics just see the opportunity.
“We still have a chance,” Udoka said, “to have a better story.”