The Bruins’ season ended Saturday. The Red Sox season feels like it ended in April. The Patriots offseason has been wildly underwhelming.
It was left to the Men in Green to keep things interesting around here and the Celtics did not disappoint Sunday, with a 109-81 Game 7 victory over the reigning NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks. Veterans Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart will take their talents to South Beach for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Tuesday night at FTX Arena.
A raucous Causeway Street crowd chanted “Beat the Heat!” in the closing seconds of the first rout of the series.
Celtics-Bucks 2022 was every bit the Ali-Frazier matchup we’d hoped to see; an exhaustive, two-week, 15-round heavyweight bout with four contests won by road teams and zero carryover from game to game. We saw smashmouth basketball for the full 48 minutes every night.
Game 7 was one final rock fight, with the winners shooting 42 percent, compared with 36.7 percent for the losers. The Celtics trailed by 10 in the first half and it wasn’t until late in the third that Boston finally broke the worthy Bucks, opening up a 16-point lead and pushing it to 28 by game’s end. Grant Williams emerged as Boston’s Deer Hunter in the finale, scoring 27 points, draining 7 of 18 from international waters.
“Extremely proud," said Celtics rookie head coach Ime Udoka. “We showed some resiliency . . . We bounced back (from blowing a 14-point lead in Game 5) and showed our resolve."
The Celtics took a whopping 55 threes in the finale, making 22 but strange as it sounds, Boston won because of defense. The Celtics are in the Final Four because of defense. They have a chance to win the fabled franchise’s 18th flag . . . because of defense.
Many of those 17 banners in the Garden rafters are owed to great team defense. Bill Russell was the greatest practitioner of defense in American sports history, winning 11 championships in 13 seasons without needing to shoot the basketball. Russell was supported by stellar backcourt defender K.C. Jones and both won multiple championships with the Celtics as players and head coaches.
Perhaps not coincidently, Boston’s 44-year-old coach played one year of college basketball at the University of San Francisco, where Russell and K.C. won 56 straight games and two NCAA championships. Perhaps Udoka soaked up some of the defensive wisdom and karma of the 1950s Dons.
One thing Russell and K.C. taught was playing hard and showing up every night and this is what Udoka and the Celtics did April 10 in the regular-season finale in Memphis. While half the league elected to tank and rest (including the Bucks, who intentionally lost to avoid Brooklyn in the first round), the Celtics routed the Grizzlies. Walking in Memphis with their feet 10 feet off of Beale Street ultimately gave the Celtics the edge against the Bucks. It vaulted Boston ahead of Milwaukee in playoff seeding.
“That’s why we played it out — to have home-court advantage in Game 7,” Udoka said.
The Celtics effectively won Game 7 in the third quarter, specifically when Tatum went to the bench with his fourth foul (a questionable charging violation). Boston led by 10 at that juncture, then proceeded to put it away with a 13-5 surge, punctuated by a couple of Williams 3-pointers. With Tatum anchored to the pine, the Celts pushed their lead to 16 and settled for a 79-64 lead at the end of three quarters.
“That was our execution," said Williams (Boston’s new Steph Curry). “It was a team effort with Jayson out. We were excited to be able to play and he was cheering us on and that’s a special thing to have."
Sadly, this stretch of Boston dominance coincided with a trio of NBA officials attempting to ruin the fan experience by calling everything. It had to be darn near unwatchable for folks watching from home across NBA America, but nobody at the Garden cared.
In the fourth quarter we saw the ultimate collapse of the noble Giannis Antetokounmpo. The two-time MVP, who carried the defending champs for 6½ games, was totally spent and scored only 8 points in the second half, 2 in the final quarter. The king of the non-called charging and traveling violations finally keeled over and succumbed to Boston’s Belichickian defense.
“Defense won this game," said Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck. “We held them to 81 points. That’s unbelievable."
Udoka didn’t empty his bench until the final two minutes with Boston leading by 26. The curtain calls for the starters were long and loud.
Now everybody gets one full day of rest and then they’re back at it Tuesday in Miami. It marks the 37th time the Celtics have appeared in the conference finals. In 75 NBA seasons.
“We’re probably tired, but we’ll give it a go," said the owner.
Players and fans are tired after this seven-game bloodbath. But it’s mid-May and one of the Hub’s teams is still fighting for a championship and that’s all that matters in sports-centric Boston.