BOSTON – It was the night the Celtics first publicly acknowledged the struggles were real, and the connection was not nearly what was advertised in training camp. It was the night the Milwaukee Bucks looked around at what they had just done to the supposed Eastern Conference favorites on their home floor, and seemed to embrace that if they can do it in Boston then they can do it anywhere they wanted all season.
Friday, Dec. 21 was a defining night for both squads that have been headed down a collision course from far different directions ever since the Bucks embarrassed the Celtics with a 26-point lead and 120-107 beatdown.
As Boston media huddled outside the home locker room for 35 minutes after the final buzzer waiting to sort through the aftermath of the first major “team meeting” of a roller-coaster season, Giannis Antetokounmpo made a declaration about the relative state of the squads.
“We think we’re the better team,” the MVP candidate said that night as the Celtics were missing Aron Baynes, Al Horford and Marcus Morris. “But it’s so hard to win in here. To be able to win – obviously some guys didn’t play this game – but this gives us confidence for the playoffs.”
For the past five months, the Bucks have been trying to prove they are, in fact, the team they thought they were that night. And they have made their case emphatically with a 60-22 record and a first-round sweep of the Detroit Pistons.
For the past five months, the Celtics have been trying to prove they are the team they were purported to be coming into the season instead of the dysfunctional bunch they resembled that night. And only in recent weeks have they begun to make that case with any sense of conviction as they bickered and bumbled through a 49-33 regular season before a first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers.
Now, as the best team in the NBA all year takes on the squad that was to be – and still may be – the one true heir to the Eastern Conference crown, it will be The Battle of Validation vs. Vindication when the series starts this weekend.
“I do expect it to be intense,” Al Horford said following Tuesday’s hour-long practice at Auerbach Center. “It’s the Eastern Conference semis. They play hard. We play hard. Just two teams that are going to be competing at a very high level. I definitely expect that.”
While few who have watched the Bucks all season still doubt their credentials as one of the elite teams in the NBA, there are plenty who believe that the Celtics can still beat them on their best set of days. The Celtics have nearly the entire squad back – plus a healthy Kyrie Irving and a recently returned-to-form Gordon Hayward, and save for an apparently rapidly recovering Marcus Smart – from the one that dispatched Milwaukee in seven games and went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, while the Bucks are coming off their first playoff series win in 18 years.
But Boston’s “best days” were fleeting all fall, winter and most of the spring. It’s fun to say that they’ve “flipped the switch” in recent weeks, but it’s probably more appropriate to say that they have finally walked the walk after all the hollow talk that began that Friday night in December.
“We’ve got to keep moving forward,” Jaylen Brown said following the infamous team meeting. “Got to keep building. We’re trying to do something as a unit. We’re trying to be together. We’re trying to make sure we’re on the right page. And we’re going to do that.
“We’re either going to be all in,” he concluded, “or we’re not.”
From all recent indications, the Celtics have taken one last, sincere shot at being the former.
“You saw it a couple of weeks before (the playoffs),” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said on Tuesday. “Maybe before the first time we played Indiana at home a few weeks ago in the regular season. That was when you kind of saw there was just a different level of intentional play, and purposeful details, and all that stuff. I thought that showed in the Indiana series.”
Horford said he liked “our focus” against the Pacers, and “we were so locked in understanding what we needed to do.” Hayward determined: “We stayed together. That’s what I liked the best. Every game wasn’t perfect, but every game we found a way to win.”
It could be said two mercifully short first-round matchups led up to this. But the truth is this has been building much longer than that. If not since last year’s contentious postseason encounter, then certainly from a benchmark December night that gave one team its swagger, and sent the other into a prolonged bout of self-reflection.
Validation of that night and this season is now on the line for the Bucks. Vindication of all they vowed to become is at stake Celtics.
If the playoffs truly begin at long last for these two teams with this series starting this weekend, the immense ramifications of what’s to come will be well worth the wait.