There was a time when the Boston Celtics’ season seemed in peril of crumbling right into a pile of fantastic dust. That they had a losing record in late January. They were scuffling through a series of injuries. There have been questions on whether Jayson Tatum could coexist with Jaylen Brown — was it time for the team to think about trading Brown? — together with inevitable critiques of Ime Udoka in his first season as coach.
It’s familiar history at this late stage of the season, but price reiterating, especially now. Why? Because on Friday night, within the wake of a late-game meltdown earlier within the week, the Celtics were facing elimination in Milwaukee. Outside of their cocoon, as they braced themselves for Game 6, the questions swirled: Had they blown their probability? Could they one way or the other find the resolve to increase their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Bucks?
The Celtics, though, appear to embrace adversity. Perhaps they’re conditioned to play at their best when everyone else thinks they’re finished, a sandcastle about to be swept to sea. Down? Out? Their sandcastle is seemingly reinforced with steel beams, and so they proved as much with their 108-95 win.
“This was a giant moment for all of us,” Tatum said just minutes after assembling one in all the finer individual performances of the N.B.A. postseason. “I feel we showed numerous toughness and growth.”
There was little doubt about that after Tatum finished with 46 points and 9 rebounds to assist even the series at three games apiece. In the method, he one way or the other overshadowed Giannis Antetokounmpo, who tried to pull the Bucks across the finish line with 44 points, 20 rebounds and 6 assists. It was a series that deserved a seventh game, and the Celtics delivered. Game 7 is on Sunday afternoon in Boston.
“I think in everyone in that locker room,” Tatum said. “We have now what it takes.”
The Miami Heat, who ousted the Philadelphia 76ers from the postseason on Thursday, are awaiting the winner within the Eastern Conference finals, with the opening game of that series set for Tuesday. The Heat should have been delighted to see the Celtics extend their series with the Bucks: Now those teams have time to bludgeon one another some more.
“You bought two juggernauts going at it,” the Celtics’ Marcus Smart said. “We’re beating one another up.”
The Celtics are grateful to be on this position after collapsing within the fourth quarter of Game 5 on Wednesday. That game could have haunted them after they blew a 14-point lead. Smart, specifically, was furious with himself for making a few late-game gaffes. He recalled going straight to the team’s practice facility after the sport, after which tossing and turning through two sleepless nights ahead of Game 6.
“I feel like I let my team down,” he said.
The excellent news, Udoka said, was that the Celtics had played well in Game 5 — until they stopped playing well. The winning components were there. And so they were on display again in Game 6, this time for a full 48 minutes.
Smart was terrific, ending with 21 points and seven assists with no turnover. Brown scored 22 points. And consider the contributions of Derrick White, a former Division II player and trade deadline acquisition who was everywhere in the ultimate three minutes of the primary half. He followed up a 3-pointer with a brief jumper. He drew a charging foul on Antetokounmpo. After which he made two free throws, lifting the Celtics to a 10-point lead at halftime.
But the fact was that Smart, Brown and White were an element of the supporting solid. The stage belonged to Tatum.
“He went into one other mode,” Smart said. “We seen it in his eyes.”
From the beginning of the playoffs, when he christened the Celtics’ first-round series with the Nets with a game-winning layup, Tatum has gone about his business of elevating his stature as one in all the league’s most ferociously expert players.
No, he has not been immune from the occasional clunker. In a narrow loss to Milwaukee in Game 3, he shot 4 of 19 from the sector and missed all six of his 3-point attempts. But within the three games since, he has averaged 36.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 47 percent from the sector.
On Friday, Tatum played an excellent all-around game. He did greater than rating. Coming out of a timeout within the third quarter, he stripped the Bucks’ Bobby Portis within the post, resulting in a layup for Brown and a 17-point lead.
Tatum also was in a position to counter the whole lot that Antetokounmpo could throw on the Celtics, which was lots. The Bucks were threatening within the fourth quarter when Antetokounmpo sank a 3-pointer. Tatum proceeded to attain the Celtics’ next 10 points, a flurry capped by a deep 3-pointer excessive of the Bucks’ Pat Connaughton.
“Obviously, I do know when I actually have it going,” Tatum said. “You’re feeling that rhythm.”
Nobody is counting out Milwaukee, after all. The Bucks are the defending champions, and Antetokounmpo is able to intergalactic feats. But without the floor-spacing presence of Khris Middleton, an All-Star forward who has been sidelined with a sprained left knee, Antetokounmpo has needed to do much more Antetokounmpo things than usual.
He clearly needs more help from his teammates on Sunday, especially against the likes of Tatum, a star in his own right.
Now, after a season of surviving and growing, the Celtics see nothing but opportunity ahead of them.
“We still have a probability,” Udoka said, “to make it a greater story.”