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Forsberg: Celtics have found true identity amid surge to East Finals

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Jaylen Brown Jayson Tatum

Long before he was the guy in charge of building the team, Boston Celtics coach-turned-president-of-basketball-operations Brad Stevens had one overarching desire for his squads: Be the sort of team that Boston could wrap its arms around.

Well, the 2021-22 Celtics are extremely huggable.

Winning, of course, aids any team’s likability factor. With Sunday’s Game 7 triumph over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Celtics are off to Miami for Tuesday’s start of the Eastern Conference Finals.

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But it’s how Boston has grown since January that makes this team particularly charming.

Four months ago this all seemed improbable. The Celtics were a nauseating blob of inconsistency, a team that complained too much and came unglued too often. Watching them fumble away a win in a national TV game against the lowly Knicks inside Madison Square Garden in early January -- a loss that dropped the team to three games under .500 and 11th place in the Eastern Conference -- had most fans checked out on this team.

Then everything changed. 

The Celtics adopted the swagger and confidence of first-year coach Ime Udoka, who was finally able to get his team to buy fully into his desires on both ends of the court. By late January, with better health and chemistry, the Celtics launched and were the best team in basketball over the second half of the season.

The Celtics didn’t run from their success and embraced surging to the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference despite a seemingly unsavory first-round draw against the Brooklyn Nets. Boston promptly swept away old friend Kyrie Irving while delivering a statement to the league.

 

On Sunday, Boston utilized its homecourt advantage to aid a Game 7 romp of the Bucks, who had downshifted at the finish line of the season and sacrificed the possibility of playing such a matchup on their home turf by resting players late in the season. How ironic then that Boston’s role players like Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard thrived inside a raucous TD Garden while the Bucks got virtually nothing from their non-superstars.

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There is so much to like about this Boston team. Jayson Tatum spent the season making Carl Lewis-like leaps, culminating with his magnum opus: a 46-point outing in Game 6. He outdueled former MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo while getting Boston to the finish line of a must-have game on the road.

Tatum is a legitimate star now -- kicking down the door on the NBA’s perpetual Top 5 conversation -- and a player who can dominate a game without scoring. He will be the most talented player on the court when the Celtics open the East finals on Tuesday.

Jaylen Brown’s energy-shifting quotes in January were prescient, even if he was simply talking about Mercury’s retrograde. His image -- and that quote -- decorated rally towels handed out inside TD Garden before Sunday’s Game 7. Watching Brown finish an alley-oop lob from Tatum as Boston separated in Game 7 was a reminder of just how spoiled this team is to have two young stars.

Marcus Smart is the glue holding it all together, all while willing to let his body fall apart in the quest of a single defensive stop. During the Bucks series, Smart was Wedding Crashers’ Jeremy Grey -- “every time I look over you’re on your a-- again" -- as he spent ample time hunched on the Garden parquet. Smart repeatedly got hit in the quad, kneed below the belt, and ate roughly 57 elbows in and around his head. And yet he couldn’t stop jumping in front of the locomotive that was Antetokounmpo in hopes of drawing momentum fouls.

Grant Williams, spectacular with his defense on Kevin Durant in Round 1, aided Boston’s quest to limit Antetokounmpo. Round 2 was a bit more of a roller coaster for Boston’s third-year big man but in Game 7 the Bucks challenged Williams to beat them and he did just that by knocking down seven of the staggering 18 3-pointers he hoisted.

 
How Ime Udoka's message to Grant Williams altered the course of Game 7

Al Horford, the 35-year-old big man on his second tour of duty in green, seems to be savoring every moment of this journey. He singlehandedly swung the energy in Game 4 in Milwaukee with his dunk on Antetokounmpo. Even if his tank was on empty later in the series, Horford resigned himself to joust with the league’s most dominant force and let his teammates carry the offense.

Derrick White hasn’t shot the ball well but the Celtics have outscored opponents by a team-best 13 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court this postseason (next closest: Horford at plus-8.8). Payton Pritchard found his shot in Game 7 and spent the fourth quarter screaming at the Boston bench about how hitting big shots is what he does.

Robert Williams sat out much of Round 2 with a bone bruise on his surgically repaired left knee but was a ball of positive energy on the Boston bench. Daniel Theis filled some of Time Lord’s minutes and held up well despite the challenges of defending Antetokounmpo.

Udoka has leaned heavy on an eight-man rotation, but each piece has been capable of thriving in their role. Boston also was able to maintain a high level of defensive intensity regardless of personnel, something that flustered the Khris Middleton-less Bucks. Milwaukee struggled mightily to score in the halfcourt this series, culminating by averaging only 65.4 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt in Game 7. 

The Celtics have an identity now and it starts on the defensive end. This team is not perfect -- particularly on offense when it can get away from its ball-moving ways -- but when everything is clicking, this team is a pure joy to watch.

And it just felt like there was no way they were losing Game 7, even after a bumpy start.

"We didn’t overcome all the stuff we did earlier in the season for this to be it,” boasted Brown.

Colleague Mike Gorman, the television voice of the Celtics, showed up to Game 7 sporting a “TOMMY” t-shirt below his blazer. We couldn’t help but think about how much Tommy Heinsohn would have loved this year’s Celtics team.

Yes, he’d want them to run more consistently. And the officiating in Round 2 would have left his blood pressure at dangerous levels. But Heinsohn would have loved the spunk of this team and the way they’ve found themselves despite the adversity.

The Celtics, with eight playoffs win in hand, are now eight playoff wins away from Banner 18. Boston will be a favorite in the East finals and is positioned to be competitive with anyone that emerges from the West if Boston’s playoffs journey extends that far.

 

Regardless of what happens from here on out -- and growing expectations will add pressure to keep this amusement ride going -- the Celtics are well-positioned to be in the mix for title contention long term.

Watching from afar, Danny Ainge can take pride in what he helped build. Six of Boston’s nine rotation players were drafted by Ainge. Horford was the team’s first free-agent splash in 2016 while Ainge and his front office staff plucked Theis out of Germany along the way. 

Stevens took the reins last summer and deserves credit for bringing Horford back while getting off Kemba Walker's contract. Even when it wasn’t a guarantee the Celtics were positioned to make a long playoff trek, Stevens rolled the dice on the deadline and splurged future draft assets to add White.

The core of this team is in place deep into the future and there will be resources to add impact pieces. As the Patriots try to find their footing in Year 3 AB (After Brady), the Celtics are positioned to steal the sports heart of this city this summer. Watching revelers shut down Causeway Street as they celebrated Sunday’s Game 7 win was a reminder of just how much joy this team has brought lately.

Yes, it’s easy to wrap your arms around a group like this. They were prickly for the first few months of the season but have blossomed in a way that no one could have expected.

There were times in January when Banner 18 never felt further away. Now, it’s never felt closer.