The effort and physicality the Celtics displayed Monday at TD Garden is what they’re going to need to adopt permanently if they are to make a deep playoff run.
After a rough opening period, the Celtics dominated the streaking Milwaukee Bucks for the final three quarters, playing the type of ball not seen for weeks.
Boston is too damn nice of a team. The Celtics lack any real enforcers and they have to become more forceful and physical. Against the Bucks, the Celtics were just that. Grant Williams got into a scrape with Bobby Portis in the third quarter that resulted in double technicals.
It wasn’t exactly the Bad Boy Pistons, but Williams’s clash with Portis served as a meaningful moment for a team that’s trying to regain its swagger and confidence, toughen its identity.
The Celtics’ 117-103 win was one of the more important of the season because it showed they have enough guile and heart to stand up to what is now a superior team. They responded from a 12-point deficit early in the second quarter to take the lead by halftime and extend that lead in the second half.
The defense stifled two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who scored 7 points below his season average and did not impact the game as he had many times against Celtics defenses designed to stop him.
What was apparent Monday is the Celtics were determined to play hard for the entire game and not abandon their defensive principles once adversity hit. The Celtics have to become a team that 1. doesn’t need motivation, such as falling behind by 20 points in order to start playing with pride and 2. realizes how to win without scoring in bunches.
The Celtics need to win gritty games. Against the Bucks, shots were falling after the first quarter and it would be a disservice only to say they won because they were efficient from the field. They won because they were the more resilient team.
The genesis of this bounce back occurred Sunday when coach Ime Udoka conducted an animated film session at practice, detailing every time an opposing player drove to the lane and a Celtics player refused to offer resistance or even worse, backed up to avoid contact.
It was Donovan Mitchell in Utah, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook in Los Angeles. And Brandon Boston’s Jordan shrug against the Los Angeles Clippers or the Cameron Payne flex after getting a putback also crept on to Udoka’s radar.
He doesn’t want a soft team, one that only wins when looking pretty. The NBA is physical, emotional and merciless and constantly requires an exertion of force. The Celtics aren’t going to win as often when they don’t get in anybody’s faces or give their opponent too much respect.
“We didn’t like some of our lack of physicality,” Udoka said. “We talked about that and I said ‘I’d rather you guys put somebody on their ass or get into it with somebody than let guys waltz down the lane.’ We knew Giannis and other guys were going to be aggressive tonight and we needed to fight back and get back to who we were at the start of the year and I welcome that.”
Udoka understands that this NBA is different from the one he played, which was a more combative and contentious league. Player fraternization has diminished the physicality. Last month second-year center Isaiah Stewart’s charging at LeBron James after a foul drew blood stunned the league because very rarely are the league’s elite players physically challenged or threatened.
It’s not that Udoka wants his team throwing punches, but the Celtics cannot relent when they are being challenged.
“We didn’t love how we didn’t fight at times,” he said. “You put it out there and guys responded well but there’s no way to sweep it under the rug. You show them how ugly it is when you show them five games in a row of those clips.
“All these guys are working out together in the summer. They spend a lot of time together, whether it’s All-Star Games.”
Udoka then pulled All-Star forward Jayson Tatum aside and told him what he used to preach to a young Kawhi Leonard about not fearing more established opponents. If you recall, Leonard competed favorably against LeBron James in his prime during the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals.
“I told him, ‘These guys aren’t your older brother, don’t treat them like that,’ and he took it to heart,” Udoka said. “It’s across the board. Our group, we know what we have to do to be effective, and if my guys know me I’m the most competitive guy and I want to see that reflect on you guys. They took the tape to heart and bounced back.”
The hope for Udoka and the Celtics is this a long-term solution. Getting a healthy Jaylen Brown back will give the club more intensity and swagger, but it’s going to take more toughness, more aggression and yes, occasionally knocking someone on their butt to harden their identity and become that difficult opponent on a nightly basis. Right now, the Celtics are that team only occasionally.