Three years ago, Clippers coach Doc Rivers was asked about the surging Celtics, a franchise that had recovered from being in the draft lottery to become playoff contenders.
Rivers said the Celtics just keep playing through the game, as in they don’t stop trying regardless of the deficit. They don’t try to do too much to rally, they simply stick to their game plan, remain disciplined on fundamentals, and trust that will spark a rally.
Many times during Brad Stevens’s first five years, it worked. The Celtics were considered one of the hardest-playing teams in the league, which has always been a high compliment in the NBA. They may have not been the most talented team or most precise, but they always played hard and through their mistakes.
In last spring’s embarrassing five-game series loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Celtics lost that ability. They became discouraged at the sign of any deficit. They lost their spirit, especially at TD Garden. They relented and therefore were humiliated.
Wednesday night’s rematch with the Bucks was only the fourth game of the season. There is much left to learn about this new edition of the Celtics, but their 116-105 comeback win at the Garden was an indication that this team may have a different characteristic than last year’s; it may have the same genes as those previous Stevens teams.
The Celtics trailed by as many as 19 in the first half, as the Bucks picked them apart, capitalizing on every Boston mistake. It was demoralizing, a deficit that could have left them deflated.
It seemed Milwaukee hit every open three. Ten Bucks scored in the first half — and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo scored only 9 — and they led, 58-42.
Stevens referred to the Celtics’ second-half rally — one where they outscored the Bucks, 74-47 — as hitting singles. They methodically broke down the Bucks’ defense, then made subtle adjustments defensively to make their stirring comeback.
“At the end of the second quarter, we wanted to cut into that lead so bad, we were just trying to hit it out of the park every time,” Stevens said. “Four games in. We need more of a sample size before we say that we’re [that type of team], but I do think sometimes you have to hit singles to come back because you [tried to] hit home runs to get down.”
Stevens listened to what he just said and started smiling. But he’s right. The previous Celtics would launch a bunch of ill-advised threes, trying on defense for a couple of possessions and if that didn’t work, they would succumb to the more cohesive team.
Wednesday’s game was a real test. The Bucks are picked to win the Eastern Conference, and just a week before the Celtics were pounded by the No. 2 team (Philadelphia) by 14 points in the season opener. Two resounding losses to the top two teams wouldn’t have been kind to the Celtics’ confidence and perception that this year is different.
It is only Game 4, a minute sample size, but there is reason to be optimistic this year is different and this team is different.
Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward recovered from poor first halves to combine for 15-for-21 shooting and 36 points in the final 24 minutes. Kemba Walker is beginning to cement his role as a closer and canned a pair of 3-pointers along with 11 free throws after halftime.
The resiliency was apparent. The Celtics continued to defend Antetokounmpo with multiple bodies and finally caused frustration toward the end. The Bucks, like the Celtics, are still trying to figure themselves out, but they should be the more established and cohesive team because most of their core has returned.
It’s difficult to send a message so early in the season, but the Celtics did let the Bucks know they won’t be pushovers this time. They played with a spark and enthusiasm not seen much last year.
“It feels great, especially because we were knocked out by these guys,” Hayward said. “Also the fact that they were kind of dealing with us pretty easy in the first half. The vibe was down. For us to get a comeback win was huge for us. I wish we would put two halves together. Still a lot of room to grow, but I’m glad that we fought back.”
At this point in the season, the primary goal of an NBA team is to find chemistry and rhythm as quickly as possible. There has been a series of upsets around the league because the learning process is just beginning. But it was a difficult litmus test to play Milwaukee and Philadelphia in the first week and come out even. So the Celtics move forward to New York on Friday, but they did learn something about themselves in this win.
They are showing the characteristics of that singles-hitting team of years past, the one that stepped on the floor and was determined to play harder than its opponent if nothing else. When you do that, the talent will resonate and the Celtics could eventually turn into an Eastern Conference contender.
“We’re going to find rhythm at some point, but it takes time,” Walker said. “We have to stay together and let our defense dictate our offense, and that’s what we did. Whenever we got stops, we got the rebound, we pushed the basketball and made the right play. You know we have a bunch of unselfish guys and it was an unbelievable comeback.”