BOSTON — Ice buckets filled the locker room, so many that team employees kept knocking them over, much to Jayson Tatum’s delight. The Celtics were sore and loving it. A hard day’s work done. Jaylen Brown soaked his feet in one bucket before limping to the showers. He emerged, moving like his 46 minutes against the Bucks wrenched his muscles tight. He smiled.
“We have a lot of talent in this room,” Brown said after his injury-riddled C’s escaped a 113-107 overtime Game 1 win against Milwaukee. “I think we have enough, and I believe we have enough. People write us off because we’re young, but we’re going to keep playing. That’s it.”
The Celtics won 55 games and entered the playoffs as the East’s No. 2 seed, a year removed from reaching the conference finals. Yet, they were barely favorites, if not underdogs, against a seventh seed. And that’s the way these Celtics like it. This is where they’ve lived all season.
They couldn’t win without Gordon Hayward, they said. And they did. They can’t win without Kyrie Irving, they said. And they are. Al Horford? Average. Jaylen Brown? Can’t shoot. Jayson Tatum? Too young. Marcus Morris? A throw-in. Terry Rozier? Redundant. That’s what they said.
These are the 2017-18 Celtics. Wounded but not defeated. Battered but not broken.
Brad Stevens saw it in them as soon as overtime began. A buzzer-beating Khris Middleton 3-pointer had taken the wind out of the Garden, erasing Rozier’s go-ahead triple with 0.5 seconds remaining. So, Stevens watched the opening tip to see how his team would respond. Horford entered the circle opposite Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee’s all-everything alien life force, and the C’s came away with the ball, but not before fighting three separate Bucks for it.
“Sometimes I think they’re at their best when those things happen. You know? I think it’s just a really resilient group of kids,” said Stevens, before correcting himself. “Not kids,” he said. “Men.”
There was Tatum, in the opening quarter of his playoff debut, standing on the left side of the arc, one half of his 7-foot wingspan extended fully over his head. He was calling for the ball. And he did every time up for the floor for the first few minutes on Sunday until the Celtics gave it to him.
“Nah, I wasn’t nervous,” Tatum said after becoming the first C’s rookie to record a double-double (19 points, 10 rebounds) in his playoff debut since Bill Russell and Tom Heinsohn both did it in 1957. Tatum added four assists. “I was excited, but I wasn’t nervous at all. It was a lot of fun.”
In the locker room before the game, his veteran teammates had told him the first playoff win was the toughest, so Tatum wanted to throw the first punch. And another flurry of them would follow. The 20-year-old scored eight points in the first quarter, making his first four shots— two pull-up jumpers sandwiched around a smooth-as-hell dunk through traffic and another spinning layup around a series of Bucks — staking the Celtics to a comfortable 29-17 lead in the first quarter.
“We call him Rook,” said Morris, “but that’s the only thing that’s really rookie about him.”
Milwaukee punched back in the second quarter. Everything we feared about this series reared its head. The Celtics couldn’t buy a bucket, and they lacked the playmakers to steal one. Rozier didn’t record a single assist in almost 10 minutes, and backup point guard Shane Larkin was worse, committing turnover after turnover. On the other end, Antetokounmpo was feasting, and the Bucks entered the break up 47-44, thanks to Tatum’s scrappiness at the end of the half.
“Welcome to the playoffs,” Stevens told the team’s rookies at halftime. Four of the C’s 11 healthy bodies were first-timers. Larkin had played only garbage time in a pair of playoff games. Morris was winless in four playoff tries. Brown and Rozier were making their first playoff starts. “This is what it is,” added Stevens. “It’s going to take even more to get this win. Just keep fighting.”
“So, we came out,” said Brown, “and we had to fight for it.”
On the wall by the locker room door they charged through for a second half that saw the sort of fight we’ve known from these C’s all season is a sign with five principles Stevens has preached:
1. Sprint to Set OUR Defense.
The Celtics grinded. They packed the paint on Giannis and dared the Bucks to beat them from deep. And Milwaukee damn near answered the call. But nothing came easy. They forced 20 turnovers and choked Milwaukee’s roster outside Antetokounmpo, Middleton and, for a stretch, Malcolm Brogdon. When they were done, the Celtics had held the Bucks to 98.6 points per 100 possessions, right around the season average that gave them the league’s best defense.
“I thought we did an incredible job on Giannis,” said Stevens, even if he finished with 35 points.
2. Execute OUR Defense with Multiple Efforts to Completion.
3. Be TOUGH with the Ball.
There was a moment after Horford blocked Jabari Parker when the Bucks forward and Morris were fighting for the loose ball. The refs called Parker for a foul, even as he kept trying to grab the rock, but Morris wouldn’t have it. Even after the whistle, Morris ripped the ball from Parker and walked with it down the court, as if to say, This is mine, and you ain’t getting it. Not today.
“That’s been my role,” said Morris. “Muck it up and get the crowd into it.”
The Garden erupted, and Milwaukee had to call timeout just to keep the roof from coming off. Morris finished with 21 points off the bench, bailing the Celtics out every time they got in trouble.
4. Play Unselfishly with Pace & Space to Get Great Shots.
With 10 seconds remaining and the game tied a 96, the Celtics spread the floor at Stevens’ behest. Rozier had a world to work with and four more options — Tatum in the corner; Brown circling around Horford and Morris to the left arc; Horford rolling off his screen into the post; and Morris slipping his to the basket. Rozier surveyed the floor and picked the best option.
“I went with mine,” he said.
A Rozier crossover froze Eric Bledsoe in the headlights. The third-year C’s guard stepped back to take aim, and then delivered a bullseye through the Bucks’ heart. Middleton answered, of course, but that only temporarily halted Rozier’s heroics. He scored another eight of his 23 points in OT, matching Milwaukee all by himself and securing the win with help from his friends.
“Terry’s a stud,” said Stevens.
5. Dominate Effort Plays.
Nobody owned more than Horford. He took it to Antetekounmpo out of the half, backing him into the post on possession after possession. He got to the free-throw line 14 times — the most single-game attempts of his entire career — and made 13 of them. More importantly, he helped foul out Giannis, who was frustrated to no end with Horford hounding him defensively, too.
Horford finished with team-highs of 24 points (on eight shots), 12 rebounds, four assists and three blocks. His two steals would’ve been a team-high, too, had Tatum not come up with three.
“We’re going to ride Al,” said Stevens. “He’s been unbelievable being a facilitator for us all year. … With where we are now, he’s going to be more of a featured scorer. And facilitate. And guard Giannis. And do everything. He’ll probably run our film session tomorrow. That’s his job.”
It wasn’t always pretty, but the Celtics put in work and passed another test — without Hayward, without Irving and without Marcus Smart, who didn’t rule out a return late in this series or early in the next one after getting shots up on Sunday for the first time since his thumb injury. Another embattled fighter, waiting in the wings, ready to scrap until someone knocks them out for good.
“It’s unfortunate what happened to our teammates throughout the whole year,” said Rozier, “but we still got each other and we still got to fight, still got to win. I just love playing with these guys.”
This is them. This is these Celtics.