MILWAUKEE — Only loud claps could be heard in a back hallway of Fiserv Forum.
A handful of members from the Celtics travel party lined the wall, waiting for a shirtless Jayson Tatum to walk into the locker room. He and his teammates had just earned a hostile Game 6 win. They had overcome a huge night from Giannis Antetokounmpo. In this ever-competitive series, which has forced each team to dig wins out of cement, the Celtics had escaped elimination with their most convincing response yet.
In a fight for their season, the Celtics were road warriors, just like Ime Udoka demanded from them back in training camp. After extending the series with a 108-95 victory in Milwaukee, the Celtics stepped into the feeling Udoka wanted his team to cherish. The same feeling he loved so much as a player. The one that can only come to those hearing applause inside an otherwise quiet arena.
“I think it’s a testament to what we’ve been the second half of the season,” Udoka said.
When everything went against the Celtics, Udoka wanted them steeled for the challenge. Bring it, Udoka told his team. We need to enjoy that.
The mentality never mattered more than Friday night. After cratering over the final two minutes of Game 5, the Celtics needed to snap back against the stubborn defending champs in Game 6 — and to do it in Milwaukee. The end of Game 5 hurt Boston so badly that Marcus Smart, who made several mistakes down the stretch of it, said he didn’t sleep over the next two nights.
Smart can sleep now. The Celtics forced a Game 7 by swallowing every Bucks run. After Antetokounmpo scored 17 points in the first quarter, Boston still led at the end of it. When the Bucks closed the gap in the second quarter, Derrick White finished the half with a string of key plays to push the margin back to nine points. And when the Bucks came back in the fourth — when all of Milwaukee wanted the Celtics to crumble, just like they had two nights earlier — Boston found some more resolve.
Smart said the Celtics didn’t need to say anything to each other to stabilize themselves.
“Which is probably one of the first times we didn’t have to,” he said. “Everybody was just calm, everybody kept their composure, and everybody was just poised as we’ve ever been, actually. And that was a sign of a team that’s maturing, and a sign that we’ve been here before, and it’s time to go handle business. And that’s what we did.”
Tatum drilled a fadeaway jumper from the right corner, then splashed a stepback 3-pointer from the left wing. In the back of his head, he said, the Game 5 collapse entered his thoughts. He didn’t think about how a defeat like that could happen again, but what his team needed to do to ensure it wouldn’t. He believed the Celtics needed to be the tougher team, like the Bucks were down the stretch of Game 5. After that loss, Tatum believed the carnage from it would define his team.
“This was a big moment for all of us,” he said. “For myself and the team just how we would respond. Losing Game 5 was going to make us or break us. I think we showed a lot of toughness and growth coming out here and getting a win on the road and just giving ourselves a chance.”
The Celtics have won two of three games on the road so far this series. They are now 4-1 on the road during this playoff run. The success traces back to Udoka’s messaging from the start of the season. He told the Celtics that hostile environments build the character of a team. Though they actually lost 15 of their first 24 road games, they eventually reached a place where the venue didn’t matter to them. They closed the regular season with 14 wins in their last 17 games away from home. During that stretch, the Celtics pummeled opponents by 17.3 points per 100 possessions on the road.
“I don’t know if it affects us playing on the road as much as some other teams,” Udoka said. “We’ve been pretty good there and I think our guys embrace that.”
To Udoka, the fabric of a team shows through on the road. There, any crack will be exposed. Any splinter will turn into a gaping hole. Any mistake will feel 10 times worse. Against the Bucks, so capable of turning turnovers into Antetkounmpo dunks, the Celtics knew they needed to be solid. They committed just eight turnovers, including four over the final three quarters. The Celtics avoided such miscues altogether during the fourth quarter. After allowing the Bucks to gash them on the offensive glass in Game 5, Boston also held Milwaukee to a single offensive rebound over the final 12 minutes.
“We had the right resolve,” Udoka said. “We talked about it after that game — we let the opportunity slip away but still had a chance to make it a better story.”
This Celtics story keeps getting better. Tatum finished with 46 points, nine rebounds and five assists, including 16 points on 5-for-7 shooting in the fourth quarter. Smart’s 21 points, seven assists and zero turnovers illustrated the weight of Boston’s mental strength. After coughing up two turnovers over the final minute of that game, plus colliding with teammate Jaylen Brown on the biggest rebound of the night, Smart said he went straight to the Celtics practice facility to try getting his mind right. As much as he tried, he said the end of Game 5 “ate me alive.” He felt like he let his team down. At one point, Smart said assistant coach Damon Stoudamire pulled him to the side to make sure he came back with his normal spirit. Stoudamire had seen Smart drop his head a couple of times after his late errors.
“I’ve never seen you do that,” Stoudamire said, according to Smart. “And I just want you to not lose confidence in yourself because we need you.”
Antetokounmpo bounced through and around Celtics players for five field goals and six made free throws in the first quarter, but Smart almost matched the two-time MVP’s production, making four 3-pointers in the period. He followed up the last one by standing up Antetokounmpo in a post-up situation twice on the same possession, then beating everyone down the court for a reverse layup. The Celtics only trailed after that bucket for a total of 12.7 seconds.
In an elimination game on the road, they led for the final 36:46. Milwaukee cut a 17-point Boston advantage to four points early in the fourth quarter, but the Celtics steadied themselves to clap back.
“In this tough an environment, Milwaukee’s one of the hardest places to play in the league,” Brown said. “The crowd gets loud, gets into the game. We just had to slow down a little bit. JT made some great baskets in the fourth quarter and end of the third that carried us over.”
The Celtics still need one more win. In this exhausting series, they know how much that will take. Brown said Antetokounmpo doesn’t seem to tire like normal players. When he keeps coming, as he will, Brown said the Celtics need to do the same. They have a deep respect for the cast around Antetokounmpo, too. The Bucks don’t quit.
“I think they’re a great team,” said Tatum. “I think everyone over there knows their role and everybody is a star in their role. They complement each other really well. They’re well-coached, they run great sets, and they’re not going to beat themselves. And they’ve done it before. And we know that. Coming into this series, we knew it wasn’t gonna be easy — by no means. Whoever wins is gonna have to earn it.”
The Celtics don’t quit either. They could have when they fell to three games under .500 in January. They could have after Game 5. They could have in front of a Milwaukee crowd desperate to see them eliminated. They could have after Antetokounmpo’s start or the Bucks’ early-fourth-quarter rush.
On the road, the Celtics fought through it all. They fought their way back home.
(Photo of Jayson Tatum shooting over the Bucks’ Wesley Matthews during the fourth quarter: Jeff Hanisch / USA Today)