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BOSTON — The Boston Celtics are fun again.
The team’s double-digit, second-half comeback against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night confirmed that all the positive vibes emanating from the Auerbach Center since late June were no mirage. Down big to the very team that ended Boston's disaster of a 2018-19 season, the Celtics summoned the resilience of a previous era and produced the sort of comeback that used to be their calling card.
The sort of comeback that last year’s team rarely produced.
The Celtics, in their quest to avoid lingering on all that contributed to what ailed them a year ago, will not soon admit as much, but it’s hard to argue: This team might finally have its mojo back. Whatever the trials and tribulations of a year ago sapped from this team might have been restored by a new-look roster eager to play like the chip-on-the-shoulder squads that used to roam the Garden.
To put it simpler: Last season's team doesn’t win Wednesday's game. That team would have rolled over, pointed fingers, suggested they’d be better in the future, then repeated the pattern over and over.
That's why Jayson Tatum smiled when he was asked about the chemistry of this team and whether the feeling in this locker room is different from last season.
“That’s a good question,” said a grinning Tatum before eventually echoing the company line about it only being four games into the season.
Yes, the Celtics could fall directly back into old habits. They could go out and get rolled by a lowly Knicks team on Friday night. But while letdowns and inconsistency became the calling card of last season's squad, this group simply doesn’t emit a vibe that suggests that effort and lack of mental toughness will be the reason they come unglued on certain nights.
“We’re tough. We’re not going to shy away when things go wrong,” said newcomer Kemba Walker. "We’re going to win as a team, and we’re going to lose as a team. When things are going bad, what I’m going to try to do is keep us together. That's the most important thing for this year.
"Tonight was a great example of that. We could have easily lost this game by a lot. But we kept on talking to each other, just keeping each other confident, and that’s going to be important for us throughout this year.”
For those that were around for last season’s frustrations, you could sense the appreciation in Wednesday’s comeback. Gordon Hayward shook off a slow start and scored 16 of his 21 points in the second half, making seven of his nine shots after the intermission. That included a fuse-lighting 3-pointer off solid ball movement to open the third quarter. He fed Walker for another triple soon after and the Celtics launched from there.
"Feels great, especially since we got knocked out by these guys, and they were dealing kind of easy with us in the first half,” said Hayward. "The vibe was down and for us to get a comeback win like this was huge for us.”
Too many times last year, things started to go sideways for the Celtics and they never caught themselves. It was accentuated when they met the Bucks in the conference semifinals a year ago and, after stealing Game 1, Hayward disappeared, Kyrie Irving checked out, and the team accepted its fate while losing four in a row to free themselves from the perpetual roller coaster ride that was the 2018-19 season.
On Wednesday, the Celtics buckled up. They came out with a defensive focus to start the third quarter and good things started happening. When Jayson Tatum hit a 3-pointer late in the third quarter to cap a frame in which the Celtics outscored Milwaukee, 38-18, he emphatically slapped hands with a courtside Paul Pierce.
"Good to see him,” said Tatum.
The comparisons to the Isaiah Thomas-era Celtics will be inevitable in the aftermath of the comeback. That spunky group of overachievers made double-digit rallies their trademark. Those teams found a way to overcome whatever obstacles were thrown in front of them. It bled into Irving’s first season here when Boston overcame injuries to surge to the cusp of the NBA Finals.
That’s not to suggest that this year’s team is on a Finals path, or that an October win over a primary conference rival somehow suggests they’ve climbed towards the top tier of East teams.
What it says is that this team might have a similar makeup of the teams that so endeared themselves to the region before last season's slog. They proved it by playing a gritty second half all while without two starters as Jaylen Brown was a late scratch due to illness and center remained in flux due to injuries. Stevens confidently dispatched 6-foot-4 center Marcus Smart to check Giannis Antetokounmpo and he limited the reigning MVP to 22 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, and three turnovers, which sorta feels like a quiet night by the Greek Freak’s standards.
In typical Brad Stevens fashion, he was already looking ahead to how his team responds to this win.
"The key is how do you handle good nights and then how do you handle the storms that are coming inevitably in the season,” said Stevens. "I’m really encouraged because when this team was in halftime, they were saying all the right things, they were thinking all the right things.
"I thought, again, at the end of the second quarter, we wanted to cut into that lead so bad, we were just trying to hit it out of the park every time we shot. So finally we just settled down and just hit singles and jut played the right way. At least you give yourself a chance. The guys really competed, played a really good team. I don't think it necessarily tells as much. We're only four games in.”
True, Coach, but four games into last season, we kinda had a bad feeling about where the team was going. Stevens himself threw up caution flags in the preseason.
It was Stevens who noted this summer that, with tempered expectations for his squad, all he really wanted was to get back to being a team the region could embrace. The sort of team that embodied what it means to play for the Celtics and in the city of Boston.
Maybe it’s an overreaction to one game but this just feels different. Yes, the Celtics are fun again. There will be bumps along the way, but Wednesday night suggested it's OK for fans to wrap their arms around this team again.
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