MILWAUKEE — The Boston Celtics should set their sights higher than the Milwaukee Bucks or even the Golden State Warriors.
Like perhaps Thanos.
And they’d probably get it done in fewer than three hours, if the start of the Eastern Conference playoffs is any indication.
They’ve finally put together a consistent stretch of basketball that’s only been seen in shades and spots through the regular season, embracing the promise of a roster that should march on to June as opposed to griping about expectations and finger-pointing.
No longer competing against the hard-playing but talent-starved Indiana Pacers, the Celtics’ off-again, on-again harmony was unleashed against a team that played better together longer than any team in the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks.
The result was an eye-popping 112-90 win at Fiserv Forum on Sunday afternoon in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals that looked shockingly easy. A Celtics squad that looked as if it had too much talent suddenly appeared to have pieces that fit just the right way in dismantling a team many believe will represent the East in the Finals.
The team that couldn’t win on the road last playoffs suddenly looks like road warriors, highlighting why they were such heavy favorites headed into the season. The Celtics’ elevator goes to the penthouse of the NBA, a place accessible by the juggernaut in the Bay Area.
What gave many pause — including some inside the Celtics’ own locker room — were the nights they played as if they belonged in the dungeon.
But if this is indeed more than a mirage, the Milwaukee Bucks could just be in the wrong place at the wrong time, placeholders for a Celtics team that seems intent on fulfilling its potential.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens gushed about Giannis Antetokounmpo in the pregame, stating his opinion that Antetokounmpo is the league’s Most Valuable Player. The high praise didn’t come with the spoiler that he planned to make Antetokounmpo’s life a miserable one, putting big bodies in front of Antetokounmpo’s length while using the Celtics’ length on the Bucks’ shooters.
Aron Baynes and Al Horford were employed to carry out the task, keeping the game’s best interior scorer from getting to his unstoppable spots and leaving him open where he’s at his most vulnerable: the perimeter.
Antetokounmpo tried to shake it off by hitting 3-of-5 3-point attempts, but the game was well out of hand and Boston will play the percentages on the underdeveloped aspects of Antetokounmpo’s game while it still can.
The outward look of frustration the Celtics carried was passed on to an opponent that knows very little about adversity this season, a Bucks team that has only lost two games in a row once. When Stevens’ plans and personnel execution matched up in the first half to create a 15-point lead, the Celtics could sense that palpable frustration and borderline panic in their opponents while recognizing their own growth.
Gordon Hayward looks comfortable in his reserve role and physically looks fresh, as if he hadn’t slogged through 82 games of rehab. Jaylen Brown feels like Iguodala-lite, a Swiss Army knife capable of doing everything between solid to spectacular, taking the added responsibility of stepping up in the aftermath of Marcus Smart’s injury and running with it.
Did anyone notice Jayson Tatum barely registered in the box score with four points and six rebounds? Probably not, but keeping Antetokounmpo’s lanes clogged while preventing All-Star Khris Middleton from picking up the slack won’t go unnoticed in the film room or by his teammates.
The petty issues that can permeate through an 82-game season, the boredom with the process of getting to this point, all have seemed to dissipate.
“I'll just say a lot of people put things that they were going through during the season behind them and we all looked at that big awesome goal at the end, so we're just clicking,” Terry Rozier III told Yahoo Sports after the win. “We were going through a lot of stuff during the season … dealing with a lot of guys battling one another for spots and stuff. But I feel like we put everything behind us.”
Trade rumors and free-agency speculation swirled all around the Celtics’ locker room, and Kyrie Irving’s future was often at the center of it — egged on by the guard’s slippery comments questioning the team’s overall maturity.
But he always left the door cracked, saying not to fully judge them until the playoffs.
“Maybe there was a bit of foreshadowing through the regular season,” Irving said. “We were dealing with our ups and downs naturally, but I think that we just have an appreciation for the group we have.”
The struggles weren’t a figment of anyone’s imagination. Too many nights they didn’t look organized for long stretches or interested in playing with one another, and amassing just 49 wins on a team this talented can’t be ignored because they’ve flipped the switch to start out undefeated in the playoffs.
But, they’ve passed every test since the games have truly mattered and their showstopper has been an orchestrator as well as a virtuoso performer. Irving has found the precious sweet spot in Stevens’ system — playing within the structure but playing freely and keeping his teammates lathered with opportunities.
He’s had better statistical nights in the playoffs and regular season, but his feel in giving the game what it needed was as mature as it’s been since he changed addresses from Cleveland to Boston.
Irving scored 26 with 11 assists and seven rebounds with a game-best plus-20. Antetokounmpo, the presumptive MVP, was a game-worst minus-24.
Irving has been long noted as a premier closer, but if he’s adding pace-setter to the resume, the rest of the playoffs will induce even more tantalizing conversation about his immediate future — and the Celtics’ desperation to keep him.
In the moment, though, the team that looked like it didn’t have an identity throughout the season still doesn’t, according to Rozier. But it’s not a good sign for anyone else, though.
“We got a lot of guys who can do so many things, I don't really know our identity,” Rozier told Yahoo Sports.
“I can't make it up in one word. I'd say we’re … pretty interesting.”
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