CHICAGO – Somberness and sorrow have filled the Boston Celtics in these NBA playoffs, so there were only blank stares when a team staffer walked into the locker room early Friday evening with a most unlikely message before Game 3 of their first-round series against the Chicago Bulls. Only when the audio recording began did the players soon understand its importance.
Kevin Garnett, as he had done so many times in the years before, had come to fire up these Celtics.
“I had never seen that before,” Jae Crowder told The Vertical of the inspirational recording Garnett delivered Boston. “But it meant everything.
“We had to get our swagger back by any means.”
Boston’s players sat inside the locker room and listened to an audio recording of the former Celtics champion igniting the team, enforcing the toughness necessary to win in the playoffs. The loss of Isaiah Thomas’ sister, Chyna, had quieted the locker room this week and dimmed the “swagger” of core leaders Crowder, Avery Bradley and Al Horford. Two losses at home gave the Celtics a 2-0 series deficit in this Eastern Conference series against the Bulls, testing their resolve and raising questions about their regular-season success.
They accepted hearing Garnett light into the team on Friday night, in the only way K.G. could. “A whole lot of cussing and words that I can’t repeat,” guard Gerald Green told The Vertical. “It was phenomenal, and it showed us the fire K.G. played with. We had to play with that same fire.”
For one night, the Celtics found their inspiration in the locker room – and it showed once they stepped onto the court. Seventeen made 3-pointers, 34 assists on 41 baskets, and a 104-87 Game 3 victory for Boston. Away from Boston Garden, Crowder talked smack to the crowd. Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk, Terry Rozier and Jonas Jerebko gave the bench some needed enthusiasm. Thomas recaptured control of the game’s pace and had nine assists with his 16 points, while Horford had an impactful all-around performance (18 points, eight rebounds, six assists, four steals). Away from Boston Garden, the reminder came.
“That’s what we’ve learned so far in the playoffs: It’s all about your confidence and having the swagger,” Crowder told The Vertical. “I think it was good to get Isaiah out of Boston, get him home for a bit and back on the road. We had to get this Isaiah. He needed to get his mind clear, and so did we.”
Boston coach Brad Stevens placed Gerald Green into the starting five in place of Amir Johnson, favoring a smaller lineup and conceding the rebounding advantage to Chicago again on Friday night. The floor spacing increased for Thomas and Horford, and the Celtics had defensive versatility with the length of Green, Bradley and Jaylen Brown on the floor together. Make no mistake, however: The Bulls also missed Rajon Rondo in every way, and don’t appear to have a point guard on the roster to bridge the gap.
Rondo has gone from the Bulls’ most moveable summer asset to their most indispensable part in these playoffs, and people around him believe the team placed an “indefinite” timetable on his fractured right thumb because of his history of playing through significant injuries. No one close to him would rule out a return once his cast is removed in seven-to-10 days and the pain decreases. Indeed, Rondo said after Game 3 that he thought he could return in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, it’s up to Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade to carry the Bulls.
Butler and Wade led a forceful stretch in the first half to give the Bulls momentum, but the consistency diminished and Boston seized a double-digit lead for extended stretches of the second half. Rondo’s management and leadership – his total cohesiveness on the floor – were never replaced, and Butler and Wade combined to miss 26-of-39 shots. When Butler needed to attack the basket and create foul trouble for the Celtics, he and these Bulls settled for contested shots.
“I liked my shots, but I took what the defense gave me,” Butler said. “I shot jumpers.”
Within this series, there aren’t many friendships. Mutual respect, yes. But rivalries exist and extend off the floor between former college teammates Butler and Crowder, and summer workout partners Butler and Brown. For now, the Celtics still trail 2-1 in the series, still must consider Game 4 on Sunday as a must-win. As Boston officials were saying in the hallway postgame: “Three more.” Three more wins to advance, to eliminate a Bulls team that tied with the ninth-seeded East team, Miami.
Boston had the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, took two losses to begin the postseason and has remembered its place now. The Celtics had reveled in the voice of a Boston great, the expletives coming one after another. Kevin Garnett carried a swagger on the court and brought an intensifying bravado out of Boston Garden as a Celtic. Once again, K.G. worked to restore the franchise’s mantra, the way he had for six seasons.
“We needed to realize why we’re here with the top seed,” Crowder told The Vertical. “We needed our swagger again.”
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