On an electronic billboard hung on the side of TD Garden, visible from I-93, you’ll find the Celtics’ credo for these playoffs: Unfinished Business. They’re the basketball Beatrix Kiddos for you Quentin Tarantino movie buffs.
If this year is going to be different than last year’s Banner No. 18 near miss, then the Celtics must take that slogan to heart by taking care of business against the Atlanta Hawks, sending them packing in a gentleman’s sweep. The Celtics can’t play with their food in Game 5 Tuesday night at the Garden. Just devour the overmatched Hawks (who will be without suspended guard Dejounte Murray), scrape the plate, and prepare for the next hoops helping — a serving of old friend Doc Rivers and the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Red (Auerbach) Sea of the NBA has parted for the Green on their pilgrimage back to the NBA Finals. It’s all setting up perfectly for the Progeny of the Parquet. Sixers center and presumptive NBA MVP Joel Embiid suffered a sprained right knee in Game 3 of Philadelphia’s sweep of the Brooklyn Nets. Embiid, who dropped 52 points in the only one of four regular-season matchups the Celtics lost to Philly, won’t be 100 percent for the potential second-round series. He might not even be able to play in Game 1.
Meanwhile, No. 1 seed Milwaukee is enmeshed in a death match with the Miami Heat after Giannis Antetokounmpo took a hard fall in Game 1, suffering a low back contusion. The Greek Freak missed Games 2 and 3 before returning for Game 4 on Monday, but the Bucks still lost, 119-114, and are staring down a 3-1 series deficit. If Milwaukee prevails, it’s going to have some bruises and bite marks from Jimmy Butler and Co. that could soften them up for the Celtics in a potential Eastern Conference finals matchup.
If the Celtics need any more incentive than the memory of the Golden State Warriors celebrating the NBA title at TD Garden to keep the pedal down in the playoffs, they have it.
Wrap it up against the Hawks and Game 1 of the second-round series against a compromised Embiid starts on Saturday. Unnecessarily prolong the proceedings by presuming the Hawks will just roll over, and the Celtics are adding more wear and tear to their bodies while letting Embiid’s recuperate.
We’ve seen enough of this series to know that Atlanta’s only chance is a classic Celtics letdown or fit of self-satisfaction. Boston is the superior team.
Jaylen Brown was right when he said the Celtics took the Hawks’ best punch in a Game 3 loss in Atlanta on Friday night. Boston didn’t show up on the boards, getting outrebounded, 48-29. Atlanta reserves Bogdan Bogdanovic, Saddiq Bey, and Jalen Johnson caught fire, hitting all seven of their 3-pointers and 12 of their 13 shot attempts in the first half. The Atlanta bench combined for 44 points when it was all said and done.
The Celtics rectified those issues on Sunday in a 129-121 victory that saw Brown and Tatum each tally 31 points, including 16 from Tatum in the final frame. Fueled by the reemergence of Rob Williams, Boston padlocked the paint, outrebounding the Hawks, 49-42, and outscoring them in the paint, 56-44.
After the win, the Celtics crossed their hearts that they learned their lesson from last postseason when a failure to maintain focus and killer instinct forced them to win series against the Bucks and Heat the hard way — in seven games — and eventually left them running on empty in the Finals against the Warriors.
This time and this team are different, said Tatum, who has upped his leadership quotient this postseason in admirable fashion.
“There were a few times last year where we kind of relaxed. … That came back to bite us,” said Tatum. “So, trying not to make it tougher on ourselves, not relaxing. We have to go in with the mind-set of we’re down 3-1, and we got to win rather than thinking that it’s over and they’re going to give up because they’re not.
“They’re a really well-coached team. They got great players, and they got a lot of pride. Go in there with the mind-set that we have to win to survive, and just be aware of learning from our mistakes from last year that kind of made the road a little tougher for us.”
Let’s hope Tatum spoke that into existence.
It’s encouraging to see the Celtics, who took their eye off the ball post-All-Star break and ceded the No. 1 seed, display a new mentality and more maturity in their championship quest.
They need to rekindle the fire they displayed at the start of this season when they jumped out to a 21-5 record, playing every game like an NBA Finals mulligan.
That level of intensity isn’t sustainable over an 82-game regular season, but it should be during a two-month postseason, especially if your mantra is Unfinished Business.
As Brown said following Game 4, sometimes in the playoffs the scouting report goes out the window, and it just becomes a dogfight. Then the basketball boils down to which team is able to impose its will and maintain its intensity for 48 minutes.
“In a sense, it’s the same approach to each and every game. It’s just being locked in and having that edge and that chip on your shoulder to do whatever it takes,” said Brown. “It don’t got to be pretty. You just got to get it done.”
The big-picture view of the Eastern Conference playoffs is coming into focus and it looks an awful lot like Lucky the Leprechaun sporting his trademark knowing wink. The Celtics are set up to benefit from good fortune befitting the franchise’s motif.
Don’t waste it. Don’t waste precious playoff energy with extraneous games. Don’t waste any more time on the Hawks.
Finish your first-round business.