The Boston Celtics could see the finish line. A 3-2 lead was right there if they could just keep their wits about them and stay on their feet. And then one stumble. Then another, and another, and suddenly, improbably, the Milwaukee Bucks nipped them at the tape to steal control of the East semifinal series.
“We gave it away,” Jaylen Brown said. “That’s how we lost it.”
Now, the action shifts back to Milwaukee for Game 6 and one of the most significant moments of the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown era.
The duo, which has been together since Tatum arrived in the 2017 draft, has already made a number of deep playoff runs together. There was the surprise trip to the Eastern Conference finals in Tatum’s rookie season in 2018, where they ultimately lost Game 7 at home to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They got back to the ECF in 2020 in the bubble, but were not fully healthy and couldn’t take care of business against the Miami Heat in a strange environment.
Both of those defeats were frustrating, but they felt like positive stepping stones for a young team at the time. The reins hadn’t fully been handed to Tatum and Brown, and in neither season were the Celtics likely to actually win the title if they broke through to the Finals — certainly not in 2018 against the Golden State Warriors at the height of their powers, and probably not against the LeBron and Anthony Davis-led Lakers in 2020.
None of those caveats apply this time around. This is well and truly Tatum and Brown’s team, and it would be a massive disappointment if they bow out in the second round, even to the defending champions. The title race is wide open this season, and there is a real opportunity for them to win it all. Tatum has established himself as one of the best players in the league, Brown is an All-Star, they’re getting some of the best basketball of Al Horford’s career and they have an elite defense that has been dominant at times in the playoffs.
The Celtics were favored coming into the series and looked to be the better team with Khris Middleton sidelined. For large chunks of the series they have been. They’ve led in the final minute in four of the five games, and despite trailing 3-2, they’ve outscored the Bucks 522-508. They could, and really should, be heading to Milwaukee with a chance to close things out and get back to the conference finals for a fourth time in six seasons. Instead, they’re coming off one the most heartbreaking losses in recent franchise history, and will be facing elimination on the road.
All of which makes Game 6 fascinating.
How do Tatum, Brown and the Celtics respond? As Tatum was quick to remind everyone during his postgame press conference, “the series is not over.” The Celtics have already won once in Milwaukee, and are more than capable of doing so again. But this group has never faced a test like this, and has never had to bounce back from a loss like this.
“The biggest challenge of the year,” Brown said. “Mentally, physically, emotionally, it puts a challenge on every component. So, we’ve gotta regroup and get our spirit to the point where we can go in and get a victory in Milwaukee.”
Will they be able to summon the resolve, the focus, the mental toughness it will take to force a Game 7? Or will another opportunity slip away? Questions like that are what the playoffs are all about, and now it’s Tatum and Brown’s turn to provide an answer.