There was a time when the Boston Celtics season seemed to be in danger of collapsing into a pile of soft dust. They had a losing record at the end of January. They were struggling through a series of injuries. There were questions about whether Jayson Tatum could live with Jaylen Brown – was it time for the team to consider selling Brown? – despite the inevitable criticism of Ime Udoka in his first season as a coach.
It is a well-known history in this final stage of the season, but it needs to be repeated, especially now. Why? Because on Friday night, after the break-up of the late game earlier in the week, the Celtics were facing relegation in Milwaukee. Outside of their pockets, as they prepared for Game 6, questions arose: What? Can they somehow find a resolution to extend their semi-final series to the Eastern Conference with the Bucks?
However, the Celtics seem to embrace trouble. Maybe they are expected to play to their best when everyone thinks they are complete, a sandy house that is about to be swept away to the sea. Down? Out? Their sand castle was reinforced with steel beams, and they proved similarly with their 108-95 victory.
“This was an important time for all of us,” Tatum said a few minutes after collecting one of the best performances of the NBA season. “I think we showed a lot of difficulty and growth.”
There was no doubt about that after Tatum finished with 46 points and 9 rebounds to help even a series in three games each. In the process, he somehow overshadowed Giannis Antetokounmpo, who tried to pull the Bucks to the finish line with 44 points, 20 rebounds and 6 assists. It was a series that deserved the seventh game, and the Celtics released. Game 7 will take place Sunday afternoon in Boston.
“I trust everyone in that locker room,” Tatum said. “We have what it takes.”
The Miami Heat, who eliminated the Philadelphia 76ers from Thursday’s pre-season, are awaiting a winner in the Eastern Conference finals, with the opening game of the series scheduled for Tuesday. The Heat must have been thrilled to see the Celtics develop their ranks with the Bucks: Now those teams have time to scratch more.
“You have two juggernauts players doing that,” Celtics’ Marcus Smart said. “We beat each other.”
The Celtics are thankful to be in this position after collapsing in the fourth quarter of Game 5 on Wednesday. The game could have upset them after blowing forward by 14 points. Smart, in particular, was outraged by himself for making several late game scandals. He remembered going straight to the team’s training center after the game, and then jumping and turning all night before the 6th match.
“I feel like I’ve taken down my team,” he said.
The good news, Udoka said, was that the Celtics had played well in Game 5 – until they stopped playing well. Winning features were present. And they were shown again in Game 6, this time for a full 48 minutes.
Smart was very good, finishing with 21 points and 7 assists without sales. Brown scored 22 points. And consider the contributions of Derrick White, a former Division II player with a commercial deadline purchase who was everywhere in the last three minutes of the first half. He followed point 3 with a short jumper. He filed a lawsuit against Antetokounmpo. And then he hit two free balls, lifting the Celtics up front by 10 points at half-time.
But the reality is that Smart, Brown and White were part of the supporting cast. The platform belonged to Tatum.
“He got into another situation,” Smart said. “We saw it in his eyes.”
Since the start of the playoffs, when he baptized the first round of the Celtics and Nets for a winning streak, Tatum has made it his business to raise his stature as one of the league’s most talented players.
No, he has not been able to protect himself from the ills here and there. In a small blow to Milwaukee in Game 3, he hit 4 out of 19 from the field and missed all six of his 3-point attempts.
On Friday, Tatum played a good round game. He did more than score. Coming out of time in the third quarter, he stripped the Bucks’ Bobby Portis of the post, resulting in Brown’s arrangement and leading by 17 points.
Tatum was also able to cope with everything that Antetokounmpo could throw at the Celtics, which were numerous. The Bucks were threatening in the fourth quarter when Antetokounmpo dipped in a score of 3.
“Obviously, I know when I do it,” Tatum said. “You feel that rhythm.”
No one counts Milwaukee, of course. The Bucks are the defending champions, and Antetokounmpo has the ability to work between galaxies. But in the absence of Khris Middleton, an All-Star forward who has been injured in the left knee, Antetokounmpo has been forced to do more of Antetokounmpo than usual.
He obviously needs more help from his teammates on Sunday, especially against people like Tatum, a star in his own right.
Now, after a season of survival and growth, the Celtics see nothing but an opportunity ahead of them.
“We still have a chance,” Udoka said, “to make it a better story.”