Celtics force Game 7 by swallowing every Bucks run, bouncing back from painful loss

MILWAUKEE — Only loud applause could be heard in a back hallway at the Fiserv Forum.

A handful of members of the Celtics travel party lined up against the wall, waiting for a shirtless Jayson Tatum to enter the locker room. He and his teammates were coming off a hostile victory in Game 6. They had overcome a huge night from Giannis Antetokounmpo. In that ever-competitive series, which forced every team to dig victories into the cement, the Celtics had escaped elimination with their most compelling response yet.

In a fight for their season, the Celtics were road warriors just like Ime Udoka asked them to return to training camp. After extending the streak with a 108-95 win at Milwaukee, the Celtics entered the sentiment Udoka wanted his team to cherish. The same feeling he loved so much as a player. One that can only come to those who hear applause in an otherwise quiet arena.

“I think it’s a testament to where we’ve been in the second half of the season,” Udoka said.

When it all went down against the Celtics, Udoka wanted them to be up for the challenge. Bring it onUdoka said to his team. We must take advantage of it.

Mentality never mattered more than Friday night. After cratering in the final two minutes of Game 5, the Celtics needed to come back against the tenacious defending champions in Game 6 – and do it in Milwaukee. The end of Game 5 hurt Boston so badly that Marcus Smart, who made several mistakes during the game, said he didn’t sleep the next two nights.

Smart can sleep now. The Celtics forced a Game 7 by swallowing every run from the Bucks. After Antetokounmpo scored 17 points in the first quarter, Boston still led at the end. When the Bucks pulled back in the second quarter, Derrick White finished the half with a series of key plays to bring the margin back to nine points. And when the Bucks came back in the fourth — when all of Milwaukee wanted the Celtics to crumble, just like they had two nights earlier — Boston found more resolve.

Smart said the Celtics don’t need to tell each other anything to stabilize.

“Which is probably one of the first times we haven’t had to,” he said. “Everyone was just calm, everyone kept their cool and everyone was just poised like we’ve never been, actually. And that was a sign of a maturing team, and a sign that we’ve been here before, and it’s time to go handle business, and we did.

Tatum drilled a fadeaway jumper from the right corner, then splashed a 3-point throwback from the left wing. In the back of his head, he said, the Game 5 meltdown entered his thoughts. He didn’t think about how a loss like that could happen again, but about what his team needed to do to make sure it didn’t happen again. He believed the Celtics had to be the toughest team, like the Bucks were in Game 5. After that loss, Tatum believed the resulting carnage would define his team.

“It was a great moment for all of us,” he said. “For me and the team, how we would react. Losing Game 5 was going to make or break us. I think we showed a lot of tenacity and growth in coming here and getting a road win and just giving ourselves a chance.

The Celtics have won two of three road games so far this series. They are now 4-1 on the road in this playoff series. Success can be traced back to Udoka’s messaging since the start of the season. He told the Celtics that hostile environments build a team’s character. Although they actually lost 15 of their first 24 games on the road, they eventually reached a place where location didn’t matter to them. They closed the regular season with 14 wins in their last 17 away games. During that streak, the Celtics have outscored opponents by 17.3 points per 100 possessions on the road.

“I don’t know if it affects us playing on the road as much as some other teams,” Udoka said. “We were pretty good there and I think our guys accept that.”

For Udoka, the fabric of a team shines through on the road. There, any cracks will be exposed. Any splinter will turn into a gaping hole. Any mistake will feel 10 times worse. Faced with the Bucks, so capable of turning turnovers into Antetkounmpo dunks, the Celtics knew they had to be solid. They have committed only eight turnovers, four of them in the last three quarters. The Celtics avoided such mistakes in the fourth quarter. After allowing the Bucks to slash them on the offensive glass in Game 5, Boston also held Milwaukee to a single offensive rebound in the final 12 minutes.

“We had the right resolution,” Udoka said. “We talked about it after that game – we let the opportunity pass, but we still had a chance to make a better story out of it.”

This Celtics story just keeps getting better. Tatum finished with 46 points, nine rebounds and five assists, including 16 points on 5-for-7 shooting in the fourth quarter. Smart’s 21 points, seven assists and zero turnovers illustrate the weight of Boston’s mental toughness. After coughing up two turnovers in the final minute of that game, and colliding with teammate Jaylen Brown on the biggest rebound of the night, Smart said he drove straight to the practice facility of the Celtics to try to pull themselves together. As much as he tried, he said the Game 5 ending “ate me alive”. He felt like he had let his team down. At one point, Smart said assistant coach Damon Stoudamire pulled him to the side to make sure he returned to his normal spirit. Stoudamire had seen Smart drop his head several times after his latest mistakes.

“I’ve never seen you do that,” Stoudamire said, according to Smart. “And I just don’t want you to lose your confidence because we need you.”

Antetokounmpo bounced through and around Celtics players for five field goals and six free throws in the first quarter, but Smart nearly matched the two-time MVP production, making four 3-pointers in the period. He followed up the latter by twice standing Antetokounmpo in a post-up situation on the same possession and then beating everyone on the court for a reverse lay-up. The Celtics only trailed after that bucket for a total of 12.7 seconds.

In a road playoff game, they led for the final 36:46. Milwaukee cut a 17-point Boston advantage to four points early in the fourth quarter, but the Celtics leveled off to cheer.

“In this tough environment, Milwaukee is one of the toughest places to play in the league,” Brown said. “The crowd gets loud, gets into the game. We just had to slow down a bit. JT made some great shots in the fourth quarter and late in the third that won us over.

The Celtics still need one more win. In this grueling series, they know how long it will take. Brown said Antetokounmpo doesn’t seem to tire like normal players. When he keeps coming, as he will, Brown said the Celtics need to do the same. They also have a deep respect for the cast around Antetokounmpo. The Bucks aren’t giving up.

“I think they’re a great team,” Tatum said. “I think everyone there knows their role and everyone is a star in their role. They complement each other really well. They’re well trained, they put on great sets and they’re not going to fight. And they already have. And we know it. Going into this series, we knew it wouldn’t be easy – by no means. Whoever wins will have to earn it.

The Celtics aren’t giving up either. They could have done it when they fell three games below .500 in January. They could have done it after Game 5. They could have done it in front of a Milwaukee crowd desperate to see them eliminated. They could have done it after Antetokounmpo left or the Bucks run early in the fourth quarter.

On the road, the Celtics battled through it all. They fought to get home.

(Photo of Jayson Tatum shooting Wesley Matthews of the Bucks in the fourth quarter: Jeff Hanisch/USA Today)

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