About 20 minutes after the Celtics concluded their regular season with a 110-97 win over the Nets on Wednesday, players filtered into the locker room, where the Heat’s game against the Raptors glowed on one of two flat-screen televisions.
Boston’s game earlier had been devoid of drama, because the Celtics had been all but locked into the No. 2 seed for weeks. But its playoff opponent remained unknown deep into this night.
There were a variety of permutations that could have left the Celtics with matchups against the Bucks, Heat or Wizards. And the picture remained quite cloudy throughout the evening. Then Milwaukee was routed by the 76ers, and the Wizards suffered a confounding loss against the lowly Magic. So the Heat would have the final say, and their game against the Raptors was in overtime.
Some Celtics glanced at the television as they walked by, but they were hardly engrossed. Jayson Tatum, whose locker offered the most direct view of the television, looked on with curiosity. Then as Miami pulled away in the extra session and grabbed the win, there was finally clarity. The second-seeded Celtics would open the postseason this weekend against the seventh-seeded Bucks.
The news was mostly met with a shrug.
“It all comes full circle,” center Greg Monroe said to no one in particular as he stood at his locker.
Monroe spent parts of the last three seasons with the Bucks before being traded to the Suns in November. He reached a buyout agreement with Phoenix in February, allowing him to sign with Boston. He said this playoff matchup meant nothing more to him than any other, but he does know more about the Bucks than most.
“I mean, you have a lot of guys that can really fill it up,” he said, “so obviously it starts with the head of the snake in Giannis [Antetokounmpo]. But you have other good players that can score, too. So we definitely have our hands full. We just have to come out and be ready.”
The Celtics and Bucks split their four-game season series, 2-2. Their first meeting came on the second night of the regular season, when the Celtics lost just 24 hours after losing Gordon Hayward to a devastating ankle injury. After that game, Boston rolled off 16 wins in a row, offering the first hints that it would be a factor in the East despite the loss of Hayward.
The Celtics grabbed a win in Milwaukee eight days later, and then added another in Boston on Dec. 4. The Bucks defeated the Celtics last Tuesday, 106-102, but that Boston team was extensively undermanned, lacking point guards Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Shane Larkin. Irving is out for the year, and Smart will be out for at least two more weeks with a thumb injury, of course.
“We’ve had some good matchups with them this year and it’s going to take a lot from us,” Celtics center Aron Baynes said, “but it’s going to be a fun one.”
For Baynes, Wednesday was quite fun, too. Celtics regulars Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Rozier all sat out to rest. And that led to plenty of opportunities for the burly center.
He finished with 26 points and 14 rebounds in just 20 minutes, becoming the first Celtics center to reach those marks since Kevin Garnett in December 2008. Baynes made 12 of 23 shots. Jonathan Gibson, who was signed just last week using a hardship exemption and will not be eligible for the playoff roster, had 18 points.
“I wanted to go out there and try to set the tone in the fact that we’re building toward something else,” Baynes said. “We’re not just going out there to go through the motions. We’ve got something to play for, and everyone out there tonight has an opportunity to put something in coach’s head and let him know we’re going to be ready whenever anyone’s number is called.”
It was apparent for much of the night that the Celtics were simply playing harder than the Nets. Boston tussled for second chances, sprawled for loose balls and blitzed upcourt on fast breaks. The Celtics finished the game with 20 offensive rebounds, three more than their previous season high.
Nine minutes into the game Baynes had already fired up 11 shots and tallied 14 points and 7 rebounds. The Celtics went on a 15-0 first-quarter run that gave them a 23-13 lead. Baynes finished the first half with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and the Celtics took a 53-43 lead to the break.
And Baynes was just getting started. During one three-minute stretch early in the third, he went 4 for 5 from the field and pulled down four more rebounds, helping Boston stretch its advantage to 63-47. The Nets, who had played well recently despite another poor season, appeared to have no interest in taking part in the game for the rest of the night.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.