BOSTON — They swept Kevin Durant and dominated Giannis Antetokounmpo in a Game 7. They are only halfway to their goal, but the Boston Celtics look like championship favorites after two NBA playoff rounds.
Nobody knows better than the Celtics how difficult it will be to outlast the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, given their six-game exit from the Orlando bubble in 2020. But these Celtics are not those Celtics. They are battle-tested, defensive-minded and explosive offensively. They are all grown up.
"Although they're young," said first-year Celtics coach Ime Udoka, "they've been through some things."
Boston got 30 points from Jaylen Brown to beat the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 of their second-round set, 30 from Al Horford in Game 4, 46 from Jayson Tatum in Game 6 and 27 from Grant Williams in Sunday's 109-81 Game 7 win. Everyone from Marcus Smart to Payton Pritchard contributed to the series victory.
Every inch the defending champions gave, the Celtics took. In that space, they found championship mettle.
The road to the conference finals has been treacherous. Boston's sweep of the Brooklyn Nets required a beautifully executed buzzer beater in Game 1 and four wins by a total of 18 points. It taught us that Tatum can be the best player in a series against one of the 10-15 greatest players in basketball history.
He was not better than Antetokounmpo, but we learned in their series, especially Game 7, that Boston has a rotation full of players it can trust to meet the biggest moment and a coach who prepares them for it. All felt lost in the aftermath of a blown 14-point, fourth-quarter lead in Game 5, at least to those on the outside. Inside the locker room, the Celtics still believed they were the superior team, and they responded in kind.
When Boston needed him most, Tatum outdueled Antetokounmpo, who Brown dubbed "the best player in the world" after the series. His 46 points facing elimination on the road opposite the reigning Finals MVP was the stuff of greatness. The games get only bigger from here, and his superstardom is rising with them.
"It gets tougher from the first round to the second round and the second round to the third round," Tatum said after Sunday's series-clinching 109-81 victory. "Milwaukee is a great team. They're extremely well-coached. Most of those guys are champions. Obviously, they did it last year, so it was not easy at all. You've got to give them a lot of credit and respect. They made it extremely tough, and we had to earn this."
The Bucks dared Williams to beat them in Game 7. He missed consecutive wide-open 3-pointers in the first quarter, admittedly feeling the pressure, but to a man the Celtics reassured him: "Let it fly." And did he ever, making seven of his 18 attempts from long distance. In that faith lies the difference between this team and Boston's three conference finalists in the previous five years. Everyone defends, and everyone scores.
Brown was a rookie when Isaiah Thomas led Boston to the conference finals in 2017, and Tatum was a rookie when the Hospital Celtics returned in 2018. Neither team was made to beat LeBron James. Tatum and Brown were barely drinking age when Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and the Heat bullied them in 2020.
"This is the group I feel like is poised enough to get it done," Brown said. "I feel like everything we've overcome, all of these battles and challenges and adversity that we've been through this season, as well as the challenge we just had, overcoming the defending champs, I think that we are prepared. I think that we're ready to take that next step, and we've just got to go out and take it. I know Miami is a team that's waiting for us. They're not going to back down. They're not going to give up, and neither are we."
Somewhere in this season, through a 25-25 encore to last year's .500 record, the Celtics discovered their toughness. Maybe it was Udoka's repeated public lashings for their lack of it. Or they were just tired of being average, when their pedigree was anything but. Whatever the reason, they all started pulling in the same direction at the same time, turning their tug of war into a defense on a string. So, when they needed two must-win games against the Bucks, they flexed the muscles they spent building all these months.
"We had to respond," Brown said after the Game 7 victory. "Two games, our season was on the line. We didn't want it to be over. We didn't overcome all the stuff that we did earlier in the season for this to be it."
The offense followed. Since January, the Celtics have been the league's best on both sides of the ball, producing a +13.8 net rating that would have been the highest ever had they done it for the full season. In the playoffs, they have beaten the Nets and Bucks by 7.4 points per 100 possessions, more than twice the net rating of any other team but the Heat, who have toppled two teams that folded in the face of adversity.
These Celtics just took a punch from Antetokounmpo and delivered a knockout blow in return. Gone are Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward, whose hobbled bodies the Heat hunted in their 2020 series. Horford is back from his two-year sabbatical and rejuvenated from a season spent at Club Med Oklahoma City. Derrick White is playing the role previously bombed by Brad Wanamaker, and Pritchard waits in the wings. Boston also expects to reintegrate Robert Williams III and drop Daniel Theis down the depth chart.
"Enough proof is our record," Udoka said. "The second half of the season, having the best overall record, best offense, best defense. Those things aren't a fluke in a 45-game span, so we wanted to carry that over into the playoffs. A sweep against Brooklyn and a hard-fought seven-game series will only benefit us."
The Celtics have filled their holes with a mix of talent, resilience and chemistry. What separates them most from the version that lost to Miami two years ago is the development of Tatum and Brown, who are now the hunters. They fully expect Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Kyle Lowry's left hamstring to be their prey.
"I've grown in the sense of being more prepared. My body has matured since my third season," said Tatum, comparing his conference semifinals wins against the defending champion Toronto Raptors in 2020 and this year's Bucks. "I'm stronger. I take care of my body better, so I just feel more prepared for each game."
On the other side of the bracket are the Golden State Warriors, whose invincibility has given way to vulnerability, and the Dallas Mavericks, who feel fortunate to be in the Western Conference finals. None of them has passed a test so challenging as Antetokounmpo's Bucks. The Celtics have all the answers now.
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