There was a time when the Boston Celtics’ season seemed in danger of turning into a heap of fine dust. They had a losing record at the end of January. They were fighting through a series of wounds. There were questions about whether Jayson Tatum could co-exist with Jaylen Brown: Was it time the team considered trading Brown? — along with the inevitable criticism of Ime Udoka in his first season as coach.
It’s a familiar story at this late stage in the season, but it bears reiterating, especially now. Why? Because on Friday night, following a late-game meltdown earlier in the week, the Celtics faced elimination in Milwaukee. Out of their cocoon, as they prepared for Game 6, the questions swirled: Had they blown their chance? Could they somehow find the resolve to extend their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Bucks?
However, the Celtics seem to embrace adversity. Perhaps they are conditioned to play their best when everyone else thinks they are finished, a sandcastle about to be washed out to sea. Below? Outside? Apparently, their sandcastle is reinforced with steel beams, and they proved it with their 108-95 victory.
“This was a great moment for all of us,” Tatum said minutes after putting on one of the best individual performances of the NBA postseason. “I think we showed a lot of toughness and growth.”
There was no question about it after Tatum finished with 46 points and 9 rebounds to help even the series at three games apiece. In the process, he somewhat upstaged 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 a Game 7, and the Celtics delivered. Game 7 is Sunday afternoon in Boston.
“I believe in everyone in that locker room,” Tatum said. “We have what it takes.”
The Miami Heat, who eliminated the Philadelphia 76ers from the postseason on Thursday, await the winner of the Eastern Conference finals, with the series opener set for Tuesday. The Heat must have been delighted to see the Celtics extend their series with the Bucks: Now those teams have time to pummel each other some more.
“You’ve got two giants going,” the Celtics’ Marcus Smart said. “We are hitting each other.”
The Celtics are grateful to be in this position after collapsing in the fourth quarter of Game 5 on Wednesday. That game could have haunted them after they blew a 14-point lead. Smart, in particular, was furious with himself for making a couple of mistakes late in the game. He recalled going straight to the team’s practice facility after the game and then tossing and turning 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 on display again in Game 6, this time for a full 48 minutes.
Smart was tremendous, 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 followed up a 3-pointer with a short shot. He drew a charging foul on Antetokounmpo. And then he made two free throws, lifting 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 was Tatum’s.
“He went into another mode,” Smart said. “We saw it in his eyes.”
Since the start of the playoffs, when he christened the Celtics’ first-round series with the Nets with a game-winning layup, Tatum has dedicated himself to raising his stature as one of the most ferociously skilled players in the league.
No, it hasn’t been immune to the occasional clunker. In a narrow loss to Milwaukee in Game 3, he shot 4-for-19 from the field and missed all six of his 3-point attempts. But in the three games since then, he has averaged 36.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 47 percent shooting from the field.
On Friday, Tatum played a brilliant complete game. He did more than score. Coming off a third-quarter timeout, he undressed the Bucks’ Bobby Portis at the post, prompting a layup for Brown and a 17-point lead.
Tatum was also able to counter everything Antetokounmpo was able to throw at the Celtics, which was a lot. The Bucks were threatening in the fourth quarter when Antetokounmpo hit a 3-pointer. Tatum proceeded to score the Celtics’ next 10 points, a flurry capped by a deep 3-pointer over the Bucks’ Pat Connaughton.
“Obviously I know when I have it going,” Tatum said. “You feel that rhythm.”
Nobody rules out Milwaukee, of course. The Bucks are the defending champions and Antetokounmpo is capable of intergalactic feats. But without the presence of Khris Middleton, an All-Star forward who has been sidelined with a sprained left knee, Antetokounmpo has had to do even more Antetokounmpo stuff than usual.
He clearly needs more help from his teammates on Sunday, especially against the likes of Tatum, a star in his own right.
Now, after a season of survival and growth, the Celtics see nothing but opportunities ahead.
“We still have a chance,” Udoka said, “to make it a better story.”