How a crushing Game 5 loss against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks steeled the Boston Celtics’ NBA championship drive

IT IS THE SILENCE They remember — the calm that soothed the Boston Celtics in what they hoped could become their defining postseason moment, the calm they’re building on to now add another game to their postseason.

The Celtics have been out since mid-January. They had swept the Brooklyn Nets in the first round — a matchup they struggled into by canceling their final game of the regular season to tank. The Milwaukee Bucks were a tough test in the next round, but the Celtics had home advantage. The Bucks were missing Khris Middleton.

Boston led 93-79 at home in Game 5 early in the fourth quarter. His offensive began to freeze. The Bucks cut the lead behind some Transition 3s. Boston was still up 105-99, just over two minutes after Al Horford dunk.

Then came the resolution. Wesley Matthews defeated Horford for an offensive rebound resulting in a Giannis Antetokounmpo 3. Marcus Smart turned the ball around with a slapping drive. A putback by Bobby Portis after a missed free throw by Antetokounmpo gave the Bucks a one-point lead with 11.4 seconds remaining.

After a Boston timeout, Jrue Holiday shot in to hit a Smart floater, caught the ball in the air and threw it wide from Smart in one of the defining defensive plays of the season. Two free throws added 3 to the Bucks, and Holiday ended the game – ending with a miserable two minutes for Smart – by cracking Smart’s pocket at half court.

It was almost as demoralizing a loss as one can imagine. It was possible the Celtics had lost their season in a mix of confused basketball and expert opportunism from a proud champion. They’ve given that game a lot of thought over the last five days after watching a 2-1 lead turn into a 3-2 deficit in those Finals – with Boston leading in both Games 4 and 5 in the fourth quarter.

“We had a chance to take a 3-1 lead last night,” Ime Udoka, Boston’s steely and creative freshman head coach, told ESPN the day after Game 4. “But we have the ability to recover now. That really showed in this Milwaukee series. It all kind of starts with that one Milwaukee game [Game 5].”


COACHES, EXECUTIVES AND The players trudged into the dressing room after this game, curious to see what they might see. It would be natural if there was anger, frustration, maybe shouting or blaming. After a similar loss to the Miami Heat in the conference finals two seasons ago, reporters outside Boston’s locker room heard screams from Smart and other teammates inside.

After a preseason loss in November, Smart claimed Tatum and Brown stalled Boston’s ball movement. “Every team knows we’re trying to go to Jayson and Jaylen,” Smart said. “I think every scouting report is about fitting these guys. They don’t want to pass the ball.”

Smart’s comments sparked real tensions within the team, particularly between him and Brown, according to sources. The two are close and have worked things out over the coming days. But the mood behind Smart’s comments lingered for two months as Boston struggled to find its identity.

On the night of that painful Game 5 loss to Milwaukee, the Celtics had long since morphed into a different team from when Smart said what others might be thinking — closed, comfortable in their skins on both ends of the floor.

The members of the team recall a late winter post-game dinner at a high-end sushi joint favored by several players. By this time, Boston was rolling. Smart, Brown and Tatum all had different plans for dining there with friends and family. Whenever they saw each other, they connected all the tables and turned separate dinners into one big feast.

“We’re a family,” says Smart. “So we just made it a big family deal.”

The story got around; Three or four months earlier, players would probably have said hello and stayed at their own tables. There wasn’t a single moment that changed the Celtics’ internal dynamic – no rah-rah speeches, no unpacking, player-only meetings – just a gradual realization of how they needed to play together and what they could achieve if they committed to it have committed.

Still, a Game 5-magnitude loss to the Bucks would shake any team.

But what struck Celtics insiders that night, as everyone sat and stewed, was the lack of anything notable. Nobody screamed. No one voiced criticism of anyone else.

The players sat at their stands and didn’t speak to anyone in particular, some within the team recalled: “I have to get better. We all have to get better.” Smart spoke out for what he saw as a series of personal mistakes that cost the Celtics the game.

“Everyone looked at each other and kind of patted each other on the back, and it was over,” says Smart. “On to the next one. We all knew. just stay together stay together We turned our backs on each other.

Someone joked that the Celtics seemed to want to do everything the hard way, sources now say. When Udoka stepped in, he delivered a simple message: Now the Celtics had a chance to do something special – win away in Game 6 and bring it home in Game 7. Udoka knew the players understood what they needed to clean up; They would bring it up in a film session in Milwaukee the next day. Go home, rest, pack, get back together tomorrow.

“It was like always,” says Udoka.

Except Smart couldn’t go home. He said goodbye to his family and asked a friend to drive him to the practice center in Boston late at night. Alone there, smart jumpers pulled up for a while. Then he dived into a cold tub, sat down and thought.

“I understood myself correctly, pulled myself together,” says Smart. “I got into that cold tub and relaxed, taking my mind off this horrible night that I felt was almost the end for us. It was brutal. I felt like I was letting my teammates down.”

The next day’s filming session at the team’s Milwaukee hotel was low-key but hard-hitting. The Bucks beat Boston on the edges – transition 3s, offensive rebounds.

The coaches showed footage of players not being able to perform these things – lollygagging in transition defense, huffing on boxouts. They showed failures from everyone, including the core stars, sources say. The coaches spoke softly. There was no personal criticism, only That’s what we did wrong, we have to improve that. It was so clinical, the criteria so clear, that some on the team compared it to a teacher marking a test.

As is so often the case, players spoke up, highlighting their own mistakes and considering how they could do better in the same situations in Game 6.

“Our film sessions are very transparent,” says Smart. “Most of the time we point out mistakes together with the coaches.”

HORFORD, THE TEAM veteran rock, is quiet by nature – the classic type that leads by example. He may pull young people aside in practice for suggestions – Robert Williams III counts Horford as a valuable mentor in this style – but he’s rarely played the more cinematic version of Sports Leader.

He’s been a little louder this season, including at this filming session in Milwaukee, sources say. Horford has a habit of speaking out as soon as the coaches are done with a clip segment, simply asking, “Did you guys digest that? Did everyone understand what the coach said?”

“Al has always been our voice of reason,” says Udoka. “He lets everyone else know, but always in a positive way.”

Boston won Game 6, 46 points behind Tatum – the best performance of his career given the circumstances. It only allowed seven offensive rebounds and committed just eight turnovers.

In the dressing room afterwards, the atmosphere remained mostly calm – much more upbeat, obviously, but still calm. The Celtics understood what lay ahead – an anything can happen Game 7, with the winner traveling to Miami to face the top-seeded Heat.

As the players gathered, Udoka (and others) mentioned that the upcoming Game 7 in Boston was one of the reasons the Celtics decided to go ahead after their last game against the Memphis Grizzlies. Had they lost it, they could have dropped to No. 3 or (more likely) No. 4 – avoiding the Nets but slipping behind Milwaukee and potentially traveling to Toronto to face the Raptors in the first round. (Canada’s tighter COVID-19 vaccination requirements prevented the Philadelphia 76ers’ Matisse Thybulle from playing in Toronto in the first round; the Celtics declined to say whether all of their players were vaccinated before the start of the postseason.)

This time they don’t have Game 7 at home. They face a Warriors team familiar with the pressure of the Finals – relentless in the way they run their offense, fierce and smart on defense. The Warriors peck at Boston’s weakest points — turnovers and a tendency to lose confidence in the process on offense — and pounce on them for crossover points and crushing late-game runs.

But Game 6 is in Boston, and the Celtics haven’t lost three straight games since late December. It may have shaken them that they lost games for the first time in three months. We will see. But the Tatum Brown Smart Core has been through a lot. You are young but experienced. They were 3-0 down in the conference finals before breaking through this season. The Celtics are set to fight long, but with rare exceptions – including the franchise that now sees them dangling over the precipice – those runs at the top aren’t lasting as long as you might initially think.

Win once at home and the whole season boils down to one game. That game could be on the way, but the Celtics would have signed up for a one-game-for-the-title scenario weeks and months ago.

“Now,” says Udoka, “we have to take the hard way.”

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