It started with the first round against the Brooklyn Nets, who they matched up with just a year earlier. In that series, the Celtics were handled pretty easily, losing to the superstar trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving in 5 games. There weren’t many positives to take away from that series, save for Tatum’s 50-point masterpiece in their lone win. This brought a change to the organization, with Brad Stevens getting promoted to team president and the hiring of Ime Udoka. It took a couple of months, but the Celtics became a defensive powerhouse, dismantling opponents on their way to a first-round matchup with that same Brooklyn Nets team. Minus James Harden but still armed with two of the best scorers of this generation, the Celtics didn’t run like other teams who rested their starters at the end of the season. Boston didn’t care who they faced in the first round, and it showed.
After a dramatic Game 1 which concluded with a Jayson Tatum buzzer-beater, the Celtics dominated the next 3 games. Their defense was smothering, making Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving look human. Tatum and Jaylen Brown established themselves as a top duo in the NBA, averaging a combined 52 points and 11 assists per game. The Celtics sent the Nets home in 4 games, the only first-round team to sweep their opponent. Next up, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, led by Giannis Antekoumpo, arguably the best player in the world. Three years prior, the semifinal matchup between the Bucks and Celtics went a lot different, with the Bucks taking out the Celtics in 5 games. Though the core of Tatum, Brown, Smart, and Robert Williams were on the team, they were nowhere near the players they are now.
Looking to avenge the loss 3 years ago, the series was nothing short of a battle, with no team winning two games in a row throughout the entire series. In a pivotal Game 5, the Celtics blew a 14 point 4th quarter lead and went down 3-2 going back to Milwaukee for Game 6. Marcus Smart had a meltdown in the final minute and they out-rebounded 49-42, things didn’t look good. Winners of game 5 go on to win the series 82% of the time, but it seemed like Udoka didn’t really care about the numbers, “We made it tougher on ourselves, make it sweeter when we bounce back,” Udoka said after the loss.
And as the rookie coach said, the next two games were pretty sweet.
In Game 6, Jayson Tatum ascended to the level of superstardom, scoring 46 points and bringing the Celtics back to Boston for Game 7. Then, when it mattered most, an unlikely hero led the Celtics to a win in Grant Williams. Williams, who prior to Game 7 had only scored 20 points once in his career, exploded for 27 points shooting 7-18 from three in a 81-109 win to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
What awaits the Celtics in the next round? The Miami Heat, which is a rematch of the conference finals in The Bubble 2 years earlier. A coaching masterclass during that series. Brad Stevens and Eric Spolestra threw everything at each other for a ticket to the Finals. Tatum and Brown did all they could against Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and a supporting cast of sharpshooters but it wasn’t enough. The Heat ended up winning the series in 6 games and now, they meet again. It will be very different in this series, most notably that they will be playing in a sold out arena of fans. Both franchises have evolved since their matchup, with the Celtics young core developing the way they have and the Heat adding pieces like Kyle Lowry and Victor Oladipo. This series isn’t going to be easy, but the Celtics wouldn’t want it any other way. They didn’t duck the Nets in the first round, they didn’t quit going down 3-2, and they’re not going to go down quietly against the Heat. The formula is simple for a ticket to the Finals: They’ve got to Beat the Heat.