In the biggest game of their season, the Celtics had heart, poise, resolve, short memories, and absolutely no fear of the moment.
And now they have a Game 7.
Jayson Tatum and Giannis Antetokounmpo engaged in a duel reminiscent of 2008 LeBron James/Paul Pierce and 1988 Dominique Wilkins/Larry Bird, and it the Celtics’ ascending superstar who was left standing after their 108-95 victory Friday night in Game 6 of this already epic Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Tatum scored 46 points, including 16 on 5-of-7 shooting in the fourth quarter when he held the defending champion Bucks at bay with an array of swished 3-pointers and plastic-man drives to the hoop. Antetokounmpo finished with 44 points, 20 rebounds, 6 assists, and the knowledge that he is going to have to somehow muster even a little more brilliance in Game 7 Sunday afternoon at TD Garden.
No matter how Game 7 plays out, don’t you dare suggest again that this Celtics team lacks toughness, mental or physical. The degree of difficulty of this one was immense: Game 6 against the defending champions on Milwaukee’s home hardwood just two aching days after the Celtics blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in a Game 5 loss. That loss was soul-crushing, and not a lot of teams would have recovered from that.
So what did the Celtics do? Oh, nothing much. They merely went out and played like the best version of themselves. Tatum has that superstar ability to play within himself and still pile up the points, and this was a patient and poised performance. But down the stretch, he went into full I’ve-got-this mode, and it’s a good thing he did, because the Bucks had the Celtics wobbling.
Near the midway mark of the fourth quarter, the Bucks had sliced the Celtics’ lead to 85-81 on an Antetokounmpo 3-pointer, and Fiserv Forum was pulsating with the fans’ anticipation of swiping another game from the Celtics’ grasp.
But Tatum wouldn’t allow it. He buried a corner jumper at the end of the shot clock (87-81), then, after a spectacular reverse layup from Pat Connaughton (when did he turn into Dr. J?), buried a 3-pointer in George Hill’s face — again late in the shot clock — for a 90-83 lead. It was a master class in shot making, and it gave the Celtics a chance to exhale.
It must be noted that Tatum had the kind of support from his teammates that Antetokounmpo did not. Marcus Smart scored 21 points — 14 in the tone-setting first quarter, when he buried 4 of 5 threes — and dished out 7 assists without committing a turnover. It was a remarkable response after his disastrous final two minutes in Game 5. Especially for a player who said he hadn’t slept for the past two nights while thinking about what he had done and what he needed to do. Friday, he got redemption, and hopefully a good night’s sleep.
Jaylen Brown contributed 22 points, coming through in particular early in the third quarter, when the Celtics built on their 10-point halftime lead. It was Brown’s 3-pointer off a pass from Smart that gave the Celtics their biggest lead, 68-50, at the 7:20 mark of the third. Brown still gets into trouble when he goes into my-turn mode and overdribbles, but the Celtics are fortunate to have a second scorer of his skill and reliability.
A special salutation must go out to Derrick White, who scored 9 points, played dogged defense, and seemed to come away with a half-dozen clutch rebounds, steals, and loose balls in the second half. With Grant Williams suddenly looking lost on offense, White has picked up the slack with his savvy play.
The Celtics’ Game 6 performance in totality is what you hoped to see, but could not quite dare to expect with way Game 5 went down. And now, here come the two greatest words of anticipation in sports — Game 7 — between these fierce, somewhat similar teams. This series is not quite at the brute-force vs. blunt-object level of, say, the 1981 Eastern Conference finals between the Celtics and 76ers, which is the most ferocious series I’ve ever seen. But it might arrive there by the time Game 7 is complete.
What’s that? What should we expect from Game 7? You mean besides extreme and perpetual angst? During ESPN’s broadcast Friday, Mike Breen suggested that his series is so great that it’s too bad it can’t go 11 games. Eleven games? Of these 48-minute stress tests? No thanks, Mike. Seven is plenty. Seven is perfect.
I’ll acknowledge some concern about the afternoon start time. The Celtics have a habit of sluggish starts during daytime tipoffs. But they’ll be on their home court, in front of their passionate fans, and they are, by a slim but relevant margin, the more complete team. Yes, Giannis will be a handful, swooping down from the rafters, but they’re used to that.
The Bucks are worthy champions. They won’t go quietly. But they will go. The Celtics can do this. They have earned our trust. And if they play in Game 7 like they did in Game 6, they’re going to earn so much more than that.
Chad Finn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.