Celtics dominate Bucks in Game 7 win
By Scott Cacciola
It was no secret that Grant Williams was hesitating when he had open looks from the 3-point arc. The Milwaukee Bucks were offering him acres of real estate Sunday afternoon in Boston, but Williams had reached the point, after a few early misses, when he was questioning himself. Doubt had crept in. His Celtics teammates told him to knock it off.
“It’s tough to get into your own head when 15 people walk up to you saying: ‘Let it fly. Keep shooting,’” Williams recalled.
Emboldened by their support, Williams decided to do what they told him to do. It hardly mattered that it was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, or that the Celtics were facing one of the planet’s best players in Giannis Antetokounmpo, or that Williams had drifted in and out of the team’s rotation last season. It was his job to shoot. So he suppressed his nerves and delivered in a big way as the Celtics went about their business of eliminating the NBA’s reigning champions.
“We just said: ‘Why not now? Why not put it together?’” Williams said.
In a tightly contested series that was stretched to its limit, the Celtics added to their season-long comeback story by defeating the Bucks 109-81. They will face the top-seeded Miami Heat in the conference finals beginning today (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). It was not necessarily surprising that Boston won — the Celtics were a deeper, more explosive team than the Bucks — but no one expected Williams, a third-year forward, to clinch the series by scoring 27 points or by shooting 7 of 18 from 3-point range or by outshining Antetokounmpo.
Anyone who predicted as much two weeks ago?
“I would’ve called you a liar for sure,” the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown said.
Then again, the playoffs have a way of pushing unsung actors into starring roles. On Sunday, the Celtics turned to Williams, an understudy no more as the Bucks crowded the paint on defense to cut off avenues to the rim. Ime Udoka, the Celtics’ first-year coach, told Williams that the Bucks were disrespecting him by leaving him so open. Brown resorted to yelling at him: Shoot the ball!
“That’s what they were giving us,” Brown said. “He came through, man.”
Last month, Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving told reporters that the Celtics’ window was now. And he made that proclamation even before the Nets’ first-round series with the Celtics ended. It ended soon enough, as the Celtics completed a four-game sweep.
Irving and Kevin Durant in the first round? Antetokounmpo in the conference semifinals? By now, the Celtics are fearless. And make no mistake, their series with Milwaukee posed a big challenge, especially after they blew a 14-point lead to lose Game 5 at home. Facing elimination on the road in Game 6, they sailed to a win behind Jayson Tatum’s 46 points, setting the stage for Game 7.
“Two games where our season was on the line, and we didn’t want it to be over,” Brown said. “We didn’t overcome all the stuff we did earlier in the season for this to be it.”
Their whole season has been a test. The Celtics had a losing record in late January, before they found their chemistry. They began sharing the ball. They played tenacious defense. Tatum and Brown started to fulfill their twin-pronged potential as the Celtics emerged as the league’s best team over the second half of the regular season.
They made a statement by sweeping the Nets. They showed it was no fluke against the Bucks. Now, they will face the East’s best regular-season team with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.
“I’d be dumb to say I don’t feel a little banged up, but everybody does this time of year,” Williams said.
Antetokounmpo, a two-time winner of the NBA’s MVP award, inflicted a lot of that damage. Because the Bucks were without the floor-spacing presence of Khris Middleton, an All-Star forward, who was sidelined for the series with a sprained left knee, Antetokounmpo had to shoulder even more of the load than usual. On Sunday, that meant collecting 25 points, 20 rebounds and nine assists.
But there were moments — small moments — when seven games of nonstop aggression seemed to have taken a toll. After Antetokounmpo missed a 3-pointer in the opening seconds of the second half, he got the ball back for a finger-roll layup that he left on the front of the rim. As the ball caromed out of bounds, Antetokounmpo doubled over in disbelief: How? How had he missed? How was it possible?
“It felt like we started to grind him down a little bit tonight,” Udoka said, adding: “It’s an extremely hard task because of the way he attacks and doesn’t settle.”
As the Celtics’ lead swelled, the fourth quarter turned into a party that masqueraded as the closing minutes of a playoff game, replete with rhythmic chants from the crowd: “Beat the Heat! Beat the Heat!”
The Celtics did most of their damage from behind the 3-point line, where they shot 22 of 55. The Bucks were just 4 of 33. At his postgame news conference, Udoka scanned Milwaukee’s side of the box score and noticed all the zeros — from Jrue Holiday, from Pat Connaughton, from Grayson Allen. None made a 3-pointer. They combined for 15 attempts.
Tatum, who had 23 points in the win, was struck by a different statistic: Williams’ 22 field-goal attempts.
“I told him, ‘Don’t get used to that,’ ” Tatum said, laughing. “But obviously tonight we needed it.”
Williams, who was a first-round draft pick out of Tennessee in 2019, has shaped himself into one of the Celtics’ more versatile players. His ability to shoot from the outside stretches defenses. And at 6-foot-6 and 236 pounds, he has the strength and agility to guard multiple positions. Against the Bucks, he helped out against Antetokounmpo, a thankless job.
“He’s just relentless in his approach,” Brown said of Antetokounmpo.
But Williams seemed to be determined to fight until the very end. The Celtics’ lead was 21 points in the fourth quarter when the Bucks’ Bobby Portis escaped in a transition and elevated for a dunk. But Williams met him at the rim and swatted the shot away. He turned to the crowd — his crowd — and pumped his fists.
The stage belonged to him.