Celtics’ young core passed its first playoff test
The good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the encouraging and the discouraging, the exhilarating and the frustrating, the incredible and the unforgivable — it was all on display for the young and relentless Celtics Sunday in their first game of the playoffs and the first playoff game of Jayson Tatum’s career.
Buckle up, Boston basketball fans. This is the way it’s going to be without Kyrie Irving and with the Celtics relying on players who have been on this earth for less than a quarter-century. The onus is on rookie stud Tatum (age 20), second-year swingman Jaylen Brown (age 21), and third-year point guard Terry Rozier (an old man at 24) to perform like veterans this postseason with Irving idle because of an infected knee. The Celtics are relying on their precocity and their point production. They don’t have a choice.
The young guys passed their first test at TD Garden, christening this playoff run with a 113-107, vertigo-inducing overtime victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. This Celtics triumph had so many ups and downs in execution and emotions that it could have been a featured ride at Six Flags. But when it was over it was the Bucks left feeling nauseated, and the Celtics’ youthful triumvirate who enjoyed the Game 1 rollercoaster ride.
Tatum (19 points) started strong in the first quarter, and Rozier (playoff career-high 23 points) finished strong in the fourth quarter and overtime. Brown, who established a playoff career-high with 20 points (16 in the first three quarters) was the steady bridge spanning the two. That was enough for the Celtics to escape from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Co.
It was about what you would expect, considering the second-seeded Celtics’ reliance on relatively or completely inexperienced playoff performers in this first-round Eastern Conference playoff series. It was game of rollercoaster runs and twists and turns.
This group might actually give ageless coach Brad Stevens some gray hairs this postseason.
“Those guys lived a lot of what the playoffs are about today,” Stevens said. “So, the good news is they’ve now got a little bit of experience and know how hard it is, how detailed you have to be to finish a team out, which we weren’t, obviously, at the end of regulation. Hopefully, we’re better in that situation as the series goes on. But it’s hard. It’s hard to win, and that’s what you learn in these games.”
After scuffling for three quarters, Rozier had 14 points in the fourth quarter and OT. He was just 5 of 15 before he drained a step-back 3-pointer with 0.5 seconds left in regulation that appeared to have given the Celtics a 99-96 win.
The Bucks had other ideas. Khris Middleton canned a 35-footer uncorked from Charlestown at the buzzer to stun the Parishioners of the Parquet and send the game into OT tied at 99. Middleton (31 points), not the Greek Freak (35 points), was the Bucks’ best player on this day.
The Celtics were buttressed by even-keeled Al Horford, who extended his regular-season domination of the Bucks with 24 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 assists. But they leaned on their trio of young first-time playoff starters.
When you rely on players-in-progress, you get uneven and unpredictable results. The great part about being young is that it’s easy to bounce back.
Nobody signified that more than Tatum, who had 19 points and 10 rebounds to join the rarefied company of Bill Russell and Tommy Heinsohn as the only Celtics rookies to record a double-double in their first playoff game. He came out flying, scoring 8 points in the first quarter on 4-of-4 shooting, including a thunderous dunk in which he swooped down like a condor. After that start, he missed his next seven shots.
Tatum ended the stretch by hitting an absurd step-back 3-pointer over Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon with 15.2 seconds left in the third quarter. It was the type of individual offensive brilliance that only elite NBA players can conjure, and it put the Celtics up, 70-64, before Middleton sent the teams to the final frame 4 points apart.
In overtime, Tatum drove to the hoop and hit a twisting, acrobatic layup around Antetokounmpo with 1:22 to go, masterful stuff. But he turned the ball over with 41.2 seconds left and the Celtics up 2. Then he blocked a Brogdon shot that would have tied the game. Go figure.
Rozier also showcased peaks and valleys. It would’ve been hard to believe that Rozier was going to be a pivotal part of the Celtics’ win with his long-range marksmanship. The rambunctious Rozier was 4 of 13 for 9 points after the third quarter and 1 of 6 from 3-point range. He finished 7 of 18 from the field and 4 of 9 from three.
With 2:16 left in the first half, a Rozier 3-pointer hit nothing but net — without going through the rim. It was an airball. Eager to celebrate points and with a deceptive viewpoint, Celtics fans behind Boston’s basket cheered. When it was over, they were cheering Rozier for legitimate reasons, as he collected 8 of Boston’s 14 points in OT.
“We’re the youngest guys, especially in the starting lineup,” Tatum said. “We’ve had significant experience throughout the season due to injuries. We’ve been in tough games. I think that really helped us out today.
“We have faith in our abilities, all the young guys. We earned the respect of all the older guys and the coaches throughout this season. I think that’s going to help us in the long run.”
Game 1 showed that the Celtics’ youth can be both a strength and a weakness, vacillating from quarter to quarter and spurt to spurt.
During his postgame press conference, Stevens praised the resiliency of his players for dealing with the highs and lows, and he referred to them as kids.
“Not kids, men,” Stevens corrected himself.
The Celtics need the kids to play like NBA grown men to make the playoff run predicted for the Green pre-Irving injury. But there will be growing pains.
“I think we have enough, and we believe we have enough,” Brown said. “We got young guys, and people write us off because we’re young, but the numbers are there. We’re going to keep playing. That’s it.”