With steely resolve, the Celtics redeemed themselves in Game 6
We should’ve learned by now that the Procrastinators of the Parquet do their best work when things look the worst, when it’s do or be done. You could’ve bet the house on Boston in this one.
Wounded, doubted, and admonished is the Celtics’ preferred hoops habitat. That’s how a team that was 23-24 transformed into an Eastern Conference favorite. It’s how a team that coughed up a key playoff game against the defending NBA champions shook it off to regain even ground and home court.
“We have the right resolve. We talked about it after that game. We let an opportunity slip away, but we still have a chance to make it a better story I guess,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka.
“Everybody was pissed about the outcome, but we knew how well we played throughout this series and let some things slip away, but never any doubt or hangovers from that game. We’re looking forward to getting back to the Garden.”
After the Celtics seized up instead of seizing control of the series, their Big Two, Plus One of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart all had to answer for the debacle.
The core three provided their real response Friday night, all rising to the occasion to keep the sun from setting on their season, combining for 89 of the 108 points. Tatum shot 17 of 32. Brown (22 points) and Smart combined to shoot 15 of 32.
Smart, who set the tone with a 14-point first quarter, said he hadn’t slept since the Game 5 loss where he turned over the ball on the team’s final two possessions. The chest-puffing point guard is the talisman for this team, an ultimate believer in himself who never backs down from anyone or any challenge.
Smart responded with 21 points, 7 assists, and zero turnovers to atone just like his team.
”Definitely, that final minute, those final minutes ate me alive. I was really hurt after that game. I felt like I let my team down,” said Smart. “They just said, ‘Be you.’ other [assistant] Damon Stoudamire pulled me aside and just told me, ‘I don’t want you to lose confidence in yourself.’”
That message resonated with the entire team. The Celtics are the better team in this series, their elevator goes higher than Milwaukee’s.
By the time Tatum powered through Pat Connaughton for a three-point play and then flexed for the Milwaukee crowd the Deer District has turned into the Disappointment District.
This was a night in which the Celtics flexed their considerable offensive muscle and shot their way out of a corner, hitting 17 of 43 three-pointers and answering offensively every time Giannis Antetokounmpo, who dropped 44 points, got traction.
The Bucks now might rue the final day of the regular season when they rested all of their rotation players, save for Jrue Holiday participating for eight seconds to achieve a $306,000 bonus, instead of locking up the No. 2 seeds.
The Celtics played it out and passed Milwaukee for the No. 2 seeds. That could be the difference in the series. The Bucks must beat Boston on the parquet for a third time
There was some agita for the Green in this one, of course.
The Celtics opened up a 68-50 third-quarter lead on a three from Brown, who came alive in the third.
In typical Celtics fashion, they fell in love with the three, mesmerized by it like a child staring at a mobile. That allowed Milwaukee to slice the lead in half. But Tatum closed the third strong with seven of his 12-third quarter points and the Celtics went into the fourth up a dozen (82-70).
They led by as many as 14 in the fourth, the same lead they blew in Game 5.
Bucks in Six looked more like wishful thinking than a repetitive rallying cry.
Milwaukee made one final fourth push. It sparked deja vu.
A key juncture came on the most odious play in basketball — block/charge. There is an entire generation of NBA defenders told to flop around like a fresh catch on the deck of a fishing boat.
Grant Williams appeared to draw a fifth personal foul on the Greek Freak on a drive with 10:16 to go. But the Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer challenged, and the call was overturned.
Given a new lease on life, Antetokounmpo hit both free throws to make it 84-74.
Milwaukee got as close as 4 (85-81) on a three by Giannis, who made two of his three 3-point attempts after entering the game shooting 19 percent from there in the series, with 8:42 left.
“Everybody was just calm,” said Smart. “Everybody kept their composure, and everybody was as positive as we’ve ever been actually. That was a sign of a team that is maturing.”
“We had the lead and, obviously, giving one away we didn’t want to replicate that,” said Udoka.
Tatum made sure they didn’t.
JT responded with the next 10 Celtics points in cold-blooded fashion. He connected on two smooth fadeaway jumpers and a pair of treys to keep the Bucks at bay at 95-87 with 5:23 to go.
Then out of a Celtics timeout, Brown chimed in with a wide-open three to make it 98-87. Smart responded with a step-back 22-footer with the shot-clock running down to bump the lead back to 13 with 4:20 left.
“Definitely a signature game for Jayson and for the Celtics,” said Brown.
They’ll have another signature game on Sunday with a chance to sign in to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.