The Celtics needed a statement game. All the feel-good momentum from their sweep of the No No (Nan) Nets was gone with Sunday’s Game 1 Garden at the hands of the defending world champion Milwaukee Bucks.
The national narrative seemed to be moving away from Boston as a dangerous team, bound for the NBA Finals. Marcus Smart was hurt and pundits were criticizing Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, who both underperformed in the series opener.
With this negativity in their heads and Smart (bruised thigh) on the shelf, the Celtics responded with one of their best games of the season, taking a 65-40 halftime lead and playing crushing defense in a 109-86 run. . Game 2 wire-to-wire victory over the Bucks at the Garden. Brown (seven turnovers and 4-for-13 shooting in Game 1) scored 30, shooting 6-for-10 from international waters.
The 1-1 series resumes Saturday afternoon in Milwaukee.
“We got punched in the mouth last game,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “The big message was, ‘Let’s show them who we are and why we’re here.’ ”
Our fair town needed a hakuna matata moment in this first week of May. The Patriots had a dodgy weekend draft, the Bruins got stoned in their first playoff game, the Red Sox are a train wreck, and suddenly there are questions about the team that seemed closest to a Duck Boat ride. .
The possibility of the Celts losing two at home seemed real, and it’s not often you see a team lose two at home and then win a seven-game series. The 2017 Isaiah Thomas Celts pulled off the trick in the first round against the Bulls, but beating these Bucks four out of five seemed like too high an order.
No problem. Boston improved its defense (Giannis Antetokounmpo made just one of his first 10 shots and finished with 28 points on 11-of-27 shooting) and rocketed out of the blocks with a sizzling first half led by Brown’s 25 points.
The big news, before the game, was that Smart would not play due to a bruised thigh. It was a bit of a surprise, given the importance of the game and Smart’s toughness. Smart suffered a “stinger” to his right shoulder and a hamstring contusion in Sunday’s loss, but cynics (like me) had a hard time believing a hamstring bruise would sideline him.
If it makes you feel any better, Larry Bird himself missed a playoff game with the flu in 1983 and another with elbow bursitis in 1985 (Boston lost both games).
Larry’s former teammate Cedric Maxwell knows a bit about this. In his final playoff spring with the Greens, Max was unable to contribute due to a knee injury and did not play in Game 6 of the 1985 Finals loss to the Lakers. Now a radio black man with the Celtics, Max missed Game 1 of this series due to a bout with COVID, but returned to his station (“they gave me some of those Kamala Harris drugs” – Max) to the game 2.
Derrick White started in place of Smart, took the first shot of the game and blocked it. It was the only thing that didn’t work out for the Celtics tonight.
Without the Defensive Player of the Year, Boston went into blocking mode, forcing the Bucks to miss 10 of their first 11 shots. Antetokounmpo went 0-for-6 from the gate and didn’t score until the final minute of the quarter, which ended with the Celtics winning, 32-21. The Celtics have limited him to 38.5 percent (20 of 52) in the series.
White-hot Brown had 17 in the fourth.
It was an important start after the way the Bucks dominated on the floor in Game 1. The drum beat changed from pro-Boston to pro-Bucks after that game with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith joining the chorus of greek monsters.
Stephen A. was among those who said Brown and Tatum (29 points) had to step up in Game 2 and Brown played like a guy who got the message. The California veteran made seven of his first eight shots (all four of his 3-pointers) and his 3-pointer made it 42-25 with 6:58 left in the first, forcing a Milwaukee timeout.
With 4:38 left in the first half, a pair of free throws by Tatum extended the lead to 20:49-29. Giannis was still stuck at 2 points on 1-of-10 shooting. It was 65-40 at halftime and the Celts took the lead to 26 early in the third. Milwaukee never got closer than 12.
“I loved our aggressiveness,” said Udoka. “In Game 1 I didn’t love how we didn’t respond to his physicality. We learned things in Game 1. We hadn’t been beaten like this all year. . . But look who we’ve been in the last few months. We haven’t lost two in a row in a long time.”
It looks like three of the NBA conference semifinalists are almost a certainty. It looks like the Warriors and Suns in the West and the Miami Heat have a very good chance of beating the Sixers for a spot in the East.
Celtics-Bucks feels like a draw. There is no pattern yet.
You may want to plan for Game 7 at the Garden on May 15.