The one encouraging sign for the Celtics is that they are embracing this Game 7 situation with the Milwaukee Bucks. Of course, the alternative after their disheartening 110-107 loss in Game 5 on Wednesday was elimination if they lost two days later.
Jayson Tatum saved his best career playoff performance for the perfect time in a 108-95 win in Game 6 Friday night in Milwaukee, and Sunday’s finale in this best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series will be the latest of monumental playoff games played by the trio of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Tatum.
This is the fourth Game 7 for that group, and they are 2-1 in the previous three. The Celtics played two Game 7s in 2018, Tatum’s rookie year, beating the Bucks in the first round before losing to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
They came back in the 2020 NBA Bubble to beat the Toronto Raptors before losing to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
So the experience and desire are there, but these are legacy-defining games. This is a game that will determine the state of the Celtics franchise. They have had championship aspirations since drafting Brown and Tatum in consecutive years.
They have come close, losing to LeBron and the Cavaliers four years ago when the Celtics went 7-for-39 from the 3-point line in a disappointing offensive effort.
The Celtics had high hopes for a long run after acquiring Kyrie Irving to join Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, but despite being healthy, Irving became disengaged during the playoffs, planning his exit for Brooklyn, as the Celtics were dispatched in five games by Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.
In the Bubble, the Celtics were favorites against the cohesive Miami Heat, but were embarrassed by repeated fourth-quarter collapses and lost in six games, perhaps the most disappointing stretch in the Tatum-Brown-Smart era.
A loss Sunday wouldn’t be the low point, but it would hinder the Celtics chances for becoming a perennial title contender because their process is nearly five years in. It was understandable they were thwarted by LeBron James in the early years, but now the Eastern Conference is wide open, and there is an opportunity for the Celtics to become its model franchise.
Milwaukee has already won a championship and could be cruising to a repeat title were it not for a strained MCL that shelved All-Star Khris Middleton. The impact of Middleton’s absence in this series has been has been similar to that of the Celtics in 2009 when Kevin Garnett’s knee injury prevented from claiming a second consecutive title.
The Miami Heat are a formidable opponent, but are not considerably better than the Celtics. That series would be considered a pick-’em. So the opportunity is there Sunday, a chance to knock off the defending champions and capitalize on two of their premier players entering their primes.
Next year is never promised. The Atlanta Hawks were supposed to be rising in the East after reaching the Eastern Finals last season, but were eliminated by Miami in five games in this year’s first-round matchup. Philadelphia ramped up by acquiring James Harden to join Joel Embiid, but Harden was a shell of himself, causing the 76ers to lose to the Heat, derailing Philadelphia’s ascension.
The Brooklyn Nets were the prohibitive favorites to win the East in October, but chaos — led by Irving’s vaccine drama — and injuries turned them into a disjointed team that could rely on the greatness of Kevin Durant, a flaky Irving and nothing else.
The time is now for Boston. There has never been a better opportunity for the Celtics to break through, to turn this season from impressive to special.
Former president of basketball operations Danny Ainge sought to reshape the franchise following the Big Three Era by making that major trade with the Nets, moving two members, Paul Pierce and Garnett, for a slew of draft picks, that included Tatum and Brown. He wanted more for this franchise than just the Eastern Conference Finals or losing to other contenders in close series.
“It means everything,” Tatum said about playing a Game 7 at TD Garden. “The best atmosphere in the NBA. Games 7s are the biggest and best games. Looking forward to it, truly. Winning this game, giving ourselves a chance and this is it. This is do or die. This is supposed to be fun. It’s basketball. The biggest moments, the biggest stage.”
The Bucks will be more than a formidable opponent Sunday. They have no plans of relinquishing their crown. It will take the best of the Celtics to win, but these are the moments Ainge and Brad Stevens envisioned when they built this roster, restoring Celtics pride, bring the organization back to the NBA Finals and even winning a championship.
A loss Sunday won’t derail the process, but it will shift it into neutral. There have been NBA teams in the league’s history that were built to win titles and very few of them accomplished that goal because of a myriad of circumstances.
The Big Three won a title and thought they would grab a few more before Garnett’s injury and losing in Game 7 in 2010. They have only 2008 to hold on to. The Oklahoma City Thunder were supposed to win multiple titles behind Durant and Russell Westbrook. The 76ers were supposed to reign with Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Moments like Sunday are so precious that they have to be enjoyed, cherished and fulfilled.
“We don’t feel like we’re the team that should be going home,” Brown said. “Experience is the best teacher and being in certain situations and being able to learn from them has been great. Early in all of our careers, being in big-time playoff games, being in Games 7s, being in the Eastern Conference Finals, etc. You learn a lot.
“We’ve got to show what we’ve learned in this next game and survive and advance. The only thing I think about is winning.”
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.