IT’S THE CALM they remember — the calm that steadied the Boston Celtics during what they hoped might become their defining postseason moment, the calm they are banking on to prolong their postseason one more game now.
The Celtics had been cruising since mid-January. They had swept the Brooklyn Nets in the first round — a matchup they’d won their way into by declining to tank their final regular-season game. The Milwaukee Bucks were a stern test in the next round, but the Celtics had home-court advantage. The Bucks were missing Khris Middleton.
Boston led 93-79 early in the fourth quarter at home in Game 5. Its offense began to freeze up. The Bucks whittled the lead behind some transition 3s. Boston was still up 105-99 with just over two minutes left after an Al Horford dunk.
Then came the unraveling. Wesley Matthews beat Horford for an offensive rebound, leading to a Giannis Antetokounmpo 3. Marcus Smart turned the ball over on a flailing drive. A Bobby Portis putback off an Antetokounmpo missed free throw gave the Bucks a one-point lead with 11.4 seconds left.
Out of a Boston timeout, Jrue Holiday darted inside to swat a Smart floater, retrieved the ball in mid-air, and tossed it off Smart out of bounds — one of the seminal defensive plays of the season. Two free throws put the Bucks up by 3, and Holiday ended the game — ended a miserable two minutes for Smart — by picking Smart’s pocket at half court.
It was almost as demoralizing a loss as you could imagine. It was possible the Celtics had lost their season in a blur of added basketball and expert opportunism from a proud champion. They have been thinking a lot about that game over the past five days, having seen a 2-1 lead in these Finals turn into a 3-2 deficit — with Boston holding fourth-quarter leads in both Games 4 and 5.
“We had a chance to go up 3-1 last night,” Ime Udoka, Boston’s steely and creative first-year head coach, told ESPN the day after Game 4. “But we have the ability to bounce back now. That really showed in that Milwaukee series.It kind of all starts with that one Milwaukee game [Game 5].”
COACHES, EXECUTIVES AND players trudged into the locker room after that game curious about what they might see. It would be natural for there to be anger, frustration, maybe some screaming or finger pointing. After a similar fall-from-ahead loss to the Miami Heat in the conference finals two seasons ago, reporters outside Boston’s locker room heard Smart and other teammates shouting inside.
After an early-season loss in November, Smart called out Tatum and Brown for stalling Boston’s ball movement. “Every team knows we’re trying to go to Jayson and Jaylen,” Smart said. “I think everybody’s scouting report is to make those guys pass. They don’t want to pass the ball.”
Smart’s comments set off real tension within the team, particularly between him and Brown, sources say. The two are close, and hashed things out over the coming days. But the sentiment behind Smart’s comments delayed for two months as Boston battled to find his identity.
By the night of that gut-punch Game 5 loss to Milwaukee, the Celtics had long ago transformed into a different team than they were when Smart voiced what others might have been thinking — cohesive, comfortable in their skin on both ends of the floor .
Those within the team recalled a late winter postgame dinner at a high-end sushi spot several players favor. Boston by that point was rolling. Smart, Brown, and Tatum all made separate plans to eat there with friends and family. When they saw one another, they connected all the tables and turned separate dinners into one big feast.
“We’re a family,” Smart says. “So we just made it a big family deal.”
The story made the rounds; three or four months earlier, the players likely would have said hello and stuck to their own tables. There was no singular moment when the Celtics’ internal dynamic changed — no rah-rah speech, no spill-your-guts, players-only meeting — only the gradual realization of how they needed to play together, and what they might accomplish if they commit to it.
Still: A loss of the magnitude of Game 5 against the Bucks would wobble any team.
But what struck Celtics insiders that night as everyone sat and stewed was the absence of anything notable. No one screamed. No one criticism offered by anyone else.
Players sat at their stalls and spoke to no one in particular, several within the team recall: “I have to be better. We all have to be better.” Smart voiced accountability for what he saw as a series of personal mistakes that cost the Celtics the game.
“Everyone looked at each other and kind of gave each other a tap on the back and it was over,” Smart says. “Onto the next one. We all knew. Just stay together. Stay together. We had each other’s back. We knew Game 6 for us, there was gonna be hell to pay. And there was.”
Someone joked about how the Celtics seemed to want to do everything the hard way, sources say now. When Udoka entered, he delivered a simple message: Now the Celtics had a chance to do something special — win on the road in Game 6, and bring it home for Game 7. Udoka knew the players understood what they needed to clean up; they would address it the next day in film session in Milwaukee. Go home, rest, pack, reconvene tomorrow.
“It was business as usual,” Udoka says.
Only, Smart couldn’t go home. He said goodbye to his family, and asked a friend to drive him to Boston’s practice facility late that night. Alone there, smart hoisted jumpers for a while. He then dipped into a cold tub, sat, and reflected.
“I got myself right, got myself together,” Smart says. “I got in that cold tub and relaxed, got my mind off that horrible night that I felt was almost the end for us. It was brutal. I felt like I let my teammates down.”
The film session the next day in the team’s Milwaukee hotel was low key but unsparing. The Bucks were beating Boston on the margins — transition 3s, offensive rebounds.
The coaches cued up footage of players failing to execute those things — lollygagging in transition defense, whiffing on box-outs. They showed mistakes from everyone, including the core stars, sources say. The coaches spoke quietly. There was no personal criticism, just This is what we did wrong, this is what we need to improve. It was so clinical, the criteria so clear, some within the team compared it to a teacher grading a test.
As they often do, players spoke up, highlighting their own mistakes and brainstorming how they could do better in the same situations in Game 6.
“Our film sessions are very transparent,” Smart says. “Most of the time it’s us pointing out mistakes along with the coaches.”
HORFORD, THE TEAM’S veteran rock, is quiet by nature — the classic lead-by-example type. He might pull young guys aside in practice to offer suggestions — Robert Williams III counts Horford as a valuable mentor in this style — but he has rarely played the more cinematic version of Sports Leader.
He has been a little louder this season, including in that Milwaukee film session, sources say. Horford has a habit of speaking up once the coaches are done with one clip segment and asking, simply, “Did you guys digest that? Did everyone get what coach was saying?”
“Al has always been our voice of reason,” Udoka says. “He lets everyone else know, but always in a positive way.”
Boston won Game 6 behind 46 points from Tatum — the greatest performance of his career considering the circumstances. It allowed only seven offensive rebounds, and committed just eight turnovers.
In the locker room afterwards, the atmosphere remained mostly calm — much more upbeat, obviously, but still calm. The Celtics understood what was in front of them — an anything-can-happen Game 7, the winner traveling to Miami to face the top-seeded Heat.
As the players gathered, Udoka (and others) mentioned that having the upcoming Game 7 in Boston was one reason the Celtics had decided to go after their final game against the Memphis Grizzlies. Had they lost it, they could have fallen to No. 3 or (more likely) No. 4 — avoiding the Nets, but slipping behind Milwaukee and potentially traveling to Toronto to face the Raptors in the first round. (Canada’s stricter COVID-19 vaccination requirements prevented Matisse Thybulle of the Philadelphia 76ers from playing in Toronto during the first round; the Celtics declined to say before the postseason started if all their players were vaccinated.)
They don’t have Game 7 at home this time. They’re facing a Warriors team familiar with Finals pressure — unrelenting in how it runs its offense, ferocious and smart on defense. The warriors are pecking at Boston’s weakest points — turnovers, and a tendency to lose faith in the process on offense — and pouncing on them for transition points and crushing late-game runs.
But Game 6 is in Boston, and the Celtics have not lost three straight games since late December. Maybe losing consecutive games for the first time in three months has rattled them. We’ll see. But the Tatum Brown Smart core has been through a lot. They are young, but they are experienced. They were 0-3 in conference finals before breaking through this season. The Celtics are set up to contend for a long time, but with rare exceptions — including the franchise dangling them over the precipice now — those runs at top don’t last as long as you think they will at the start.
Win once at home, and the whole season comes down to one game. That game might be on the road, but the Celtics would have signed up for a one-game-for-the-title scenario weeks and months ago.
“Now,” Udoka says, “we have to go the hard route.”