Game 7 Win Against the Defending Champs Would Punctuate Remarkable Turnaround for Celtics

“We need some leadership. Somebody that can calm us down and not get rattled when everything starts to go a little south. I think it snowballs between our guys,” said Celtics head coach, Ime Udoka, earlier this season.

The Celts host a Game 7 on Sunday afternoon against the reigning NBA Champions in a game that, yes––is merely in the 2nd round–– but very well might be for the 2022 Larry O’Brien, considering how good Boston and Milwaukee are.

Boston forced the Game 7 behind Jayson Tatum’s heroics on Friday night in Milwaukee. The 24-year-old scored 46 points, including 16 in the fourth quarter as the Bucks attempted a comeback. Tatum’s Game 6 performance put him in legendary company: 

How far they’ve come

The story of the second half of Boston’s season has been about responding to adversity. But to truly appreciate this moment for the C’s, let’s rewind that quote at the top of the article. 

Udoka said that on January 6th following a 108-105 loss at the Knicks. That night, New York mounted a 24-point comeback and won it at the buzzer on a contested bank shot from R.J. Barrett.

The loss dropped Boston’s record to 18-21. 

It seemed like a second-straight disappointing season was in store for the Celts. The team chemistry was off. It felt like every time they’d take a step forward, they’d quickly take another two steps back. 

The Barrett-buzzer-beater was only the latest of many crushing defeats through that point in the season:

On November 6th, Luka hit a step-back three to win the game for the Mavericks. On December 8th, the Celtics lost to a Paul-George (and Kawhi-less) Clippers team. On December 17th, in a game that I attended, a greatly understaffed Celtics squad lost by four to the then 24-5 Warriors. A Marcus Smart shooting foul on Steph Curry with 0.1 seconds left in the first half followed by a technical on Udoka for arguing the call resulted in a 4-point play, ultimately the difference in the game. Eight days later, Boston coughed up a 13-point lead with five minutes to play on Christmas at Milwaukee. In the next game, they lost to the G-League Timberwolves. And the night before the Barrett shot, Jaylen Brown missed a game-tying layup as time expired against the Spurs.

The Celtics were a painful product to watch. They had the talent, but not the poise.

New Year. New Celtics.

The season flipped in January. Boston smothered New York two days after the Barrett shot, 99-75. However, two games, in particular, made Celtics fans believe again: After a horrible 4th-quarter meltdown against the lowly Trail Blazers, Jayson Tatum exploded for 51 points in Washington D.C. two days later in a 29-point victory. Then on January 29th, the day after a loss in Atlanta, the Celtics beat a Pelicans team that they had played just 12 days prior.

It was in those games, opportunities to rise to the occasion in the face of adversity, that catapulted the second half of the season.

On the last day of January, Jaylen Brown tweeted this:

Boston went 25-6 to finish the regular season after Brown’s tweet.

In fact, out of those six losses, only once––when Luka pulled off his magic again–– came when the C’s were at full strength and not on the second night of a back-to-back.

The turnaround was attributed to several things: Trading away Dennis Schroder allowed Marcus Smart to play more minutes at point guard, and he thrived in that role with a pass-first mentality. The overall ball movement increased. Payton Pritchard worked his way into the rotation was consistently played impactful minutes. Jayson Tatum elevated his game, as he typically does in the second half of the season, and became a force on both ends of the floor. And the team defense became a juggernaut, steadily rising in the defensive rating category until they surpassed the Warriors as the top defense in the league. Udoka’s tough-love approach was finally being embraced.

A Game 7 win against Giannis and the defending champs would punctuate this in-season turnaround. And I know that Boston is a sizeable favorite, but to me, this feels like a true 50-50.

Reasons to be pessimistic as a Celtics fan

First off, the Bucks have the best player in the world in Giannis. He is unstoppable. I don’t see a scenario in which he doesn’t score at least 35 points. I expect at least 40 from him. The dude really is a freak of nature. When he gets downhill, there’s nothing you can do besides guessing which direction he’ll attack and fall down upon contact, or hope that he somehow misses at the rim. I was at Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, and the helpless feeling of going against LeBron on that stage is awfully similar to how I feel going against Giannis on Sunday, despite this Celtics team being by far the best one since the Pierce-Garnett era.

Secondly, Milwaukee has already taken two games in Boston this series. The winner of each game of this series has been the loser of the game before. Will the defending champs really lose back-to-back games? They have the heart of a champion, we saw that in Game 5. Why won’t they rip the hearts out of everyone at TD Garden on Sunday in a Game 7? Doesn’t that sound like the exact thing that a defending champion lives for, to shut up an opposing crowd in an elimination game?

Thirdly, the role guys. We know that Giannis will have an amazing game. We know that Holiday will be elite defensively. But man am I scared of the big-game shotmaking from Pat Connaughton and Bobby Portis. Connaughton, the Arlington, Mass. native is way too comfortable playing in Boston. Every second half three he takes is terrifying. And Portis just seems like a guy who encapsulates being the villain on the road.

Reasons to be optimistic as a Celtics fan

First off, karma. Boston has racked up lots of good karma. You can’t finish a regular season 25-6 just to lose in the second round, right? You can’t boast the league’s best net rating over the last 15 games of the season just to be bounced in the second round, right? The basketball gods can’t let the Bucks win a Game 7 in Boston after they tanked their final regular-season game to avoid the Nets, right?

The lineup that Milwaukee used in their final regular-season game

Secondly, the toughness aspect. This Celtics team has dogs. Since the turnaround, they have taken on the personality of Udoka. They really aren’t scared of anybody. Obviously, that narrative alone doesn’t mean that they’ll win on Sunday, but they wouldn’t be in this situation if they didn’t have the toughness in them to respond in games two, four, and six of this series. There is no rolling over in this team. This has been one of the most physical series that I can remember, and Sunday afternoon will be no different. I believe that Boston will embrace that.

Thirdly, Tatum and Brown. I highly doubt that both of them will shoot poorly. We know that they’ll bring it defensively. But it’s also reassuring to know that we have these two guys who can and are unafraid to create their own shot, even against the stout Milwaukee defense. As long as these guys attack the paint and don’t settle too much for perimeter shots, Boston will be in a good spot down the stretch. And as we know, they are more than capable of hitting dagger three-point shots.

Huge Implications

Whoever emerges from TD Garden victorious on Sunday afternoon will be favored against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. I also think that both of these teams are better than the Warriors, who have already punched their ticket to the Western Conference Finals. Sunday afternoon’s game could very well be for the NBA Championship. So let the better team win.

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