If you are a fan of NBA basketball, the Celtics vs Bucks series had it all. It was filled with glorious comebacks, superstar performances, unlikely heroes, awful refereeing, and grueling defense on both sides. From the opening tip, the series was a test of wills and thanks to a deeper roster, the Boston Celtics were able to knock off the defending champs convincingly in game 7 to take the series. Now the Celtics will make their 21st appearance in the conference finals, the 2nd most of any franchise all-time. Let’s take a look at how the Celtics got here.
Heading into their conference semi-final date with the Bucks, the Cs absolutely crushed the Brooklyn Nets in a 4-game sweep. While Boston was obviously favored in that matchup, they faced some tough individual matchups. The Cs were able to shut down Kevin Durant at times and weather big scoring numbers from Kyrie Irving in order to take care of business. The Celtics defense showed that when they needed to clamp down, they could stifle the Nets offense and force them into a tough shot. In the NBA, it’s really hard to actually shut down a star with your defense, but if you can force a top-tier player into a tougher shot, it will benefit the team overall. That philosophy worked against the Nets, but against Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’s easier said than done.
The Cs got slapped with a quick dose of reality when Milwaukee crushed them in game 1. Their defense was not good enough to limit Giannis (triple-double) and allowed 25 points to Jrue Holiday. The Cs got outscored in 3 of 4 quarters and after holding a lead early in 2nd quarter, never really sniffed it again. Behind a 30-spot from Jaylen Brown, game 2 was a reverse of game 1, with a 23-point Cs win to even the series and salvage a game at home. The Cs held Giannis to 28-points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists, which for most players would be an epic performance, but not for Antetokounmpo. Game 3 was the first actual close game of the series, with an absolutely electric finish. After taking the lead with about a minute left for the first time since early in the 2nd half, a Giannis basket, Jaylen Brown miss, and Holiday basket led to a 3-point lead for the Bucks with 11.2 seconds left. After drawing a foul, Marcus Smart stepped to the line and hit the first free throw to bring the game within two. Down two, with one free throw to go and just 4.6 seconds remaining, Marcus Smart intentionally missed off the rim and a frantic series of missed shots and offensive rebounds ensued, ending with an Al Horford tip in coming just a fraction of a second after the buzzer leading to a 103-101 victory for the Bucks.
Game 4 was the Al Horford game. It’s arguably his best postseason game as a professional basketball player and potentially one of his best overall performances. Horford scored 30 points, secured 8 rebounds, distributed 3 assists and was a +20 in the 8-pt win for the Celtics. Horford was an absolute beast after Giannis gave him a long stare-down following a dunk that led to a technical foul on the Greek Freak. Horford was an absolute monster, taking over the game in a way we’ve really never seen before and it’s because of him that the series was tied after 4 and a best of 3. After a game 5 victory for the Bucks thanks to a disastrous final few minutes from Marcus Smart and a few great plays from Jrue Holiday, the Celtics’ backs were against the wall needing 2 straight Ws. If game 4 was the Horford game, game 6 was the Jayson Tatum game. Tatum was absolutely dominant in game 6 on the road, dropping 46 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and was a +21. The Celtics took a 10-pt halftime lead and never let the Bucks back in the game fully, holding the lead for the final 3 quarters. That setup a game 7 in Boston for all the marbles.
Looking back, the Celtics not tanking for an easier path in the postseason and the #3 seed, set them up for home court in game 7, which proved to be quite useful. The first half of the game was a difference in quarters, with the Bucks taking the first by 6 and then the Celtics punching back in the 2nd. Thanks to a game-changing shift late in the 2nd quarter, the game swung handily in the Cs direction. After a basket from Bobby Portis, the Bucks were up 43-42 with about a minute left in the first half. Grant Williams hit one of his 7 big 3s to take the lead at 45-43. After Tatum picked up his 3rd foul and Holiday missed a 3, the Cs had the ball with 25 seconds remaining. Brown missed a jumper with 8.4 seconds remaining and the Bucks had a chance to tie or take the lead before half, but Marcus Smart had a great defensive play, forced the turnover on Giannis followed by a foul on Giannis, his 3rd. Beyond that, Smart went up for a shot as Giannis fouled him, giving him 3 free throws. Smart hit all 3 and the Celtics walked into halftime with momentum, 3 fouls on Giannis, and a 5-point lead at home in game 7. While there was 24 minutes of basketball remaining, the court felt tipped in the Cs direction and the beginning of the 2nd half proved that as the Cs pulled further out in front after an 8-2 run and never looked back, crushing the Bucks by 28.
Now, the Celtics find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. The Celtics continue a revenge tour of sorts, since the last three teams to beat them in the postseason over the years have been the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, and you guessed it, the Miami Heat. The Heat reached the finals by beating the Atlanta Hawks in 5 games, then shutting down the Philadelphia 76ers in 6 games. The Heat have been led by Jimmy Butler, who is averaging 28.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 2.1 steals per game this postseason. In terms of scoring, the Heat have 5 players averaging double-figures in the postseason, besides Butler, Bam Adebayo (14.6), Tyler Herro (13.8), Max Strus (12.5), and Victor Oladipo (11.4) have all been contributing to the team’s 107.1 points per game. Most of that scoring is without Kyle Lowry, who has only played in 5 of their 11 games this postseason, but could potentially be back at some point against the Celtics. As of writing this, he is unlikely to play in Game 1.
The main thing that the Heat and Celtics both bring to the table is defense. This postseason, the Heat are 1st in points allowed per game and the Celtics are 3rd, which could make this a low-scoring battle of a series for both teams. During their 3 regular season matchups, defense at the forefront, so it will be interesting to see which team can create more opportunities on the offense-end with limited space.
Bring on the Heat!