Game 7 of the Boston Celtics/Milwaukee Bucks series was expected to be a fistfight between two top-tier teams, given how the first six games had played out; instead, the Celtics ended up running away with the game thanks to some lights out three-point shooting.
Boston’s leading scorer in Game 7 wasn’t Jayson Tatum, who had 46 points in Game 6, or Jaylen Brown, who helped Boston run away with a win in Game 2 thanks to his first-half outburst, but Grant Williams. Williams dropped a career-high 27 points on 22 shots, the most he’s ever taken in a game. Quite a change of pace from Game 6 when Tatum had to outduel Giannis Antetokounmpo to force the deciding Game 7.
Williams’ historic game wasn’t by accident; the Bucks were intentionally leaving him wide open at the perimeter, basically daring him to shoot, and shoot he did. There were times where Williams appeared to be a bit trepid after a slow start to the game, but with his head coach Ime Udoka urging him to shoot, Williams caught fire in the second half and sent Milwaukee packing.
“I told him let it fly,” Udoka said in his postgame press conference. “They are disrespecting you more tonight than they were earlier in the series. That was their plan on him and other guys, really shifting and making them try to beat us. You saw it on the first one he made. I basically said shoot the ball. What else can you do? Stop driving into the crowd. Shoot the shot that they are giving you.” Ime Udoka, ESPN
Udoka’s confidence in his entire team paid off against the Bucks
Udoka urging one of his secondary players to fire at will with their season on the line shows you what the Boston Celtics are all about. Williams had struggled ever since dropping 21 points in Game 2, and after Tatum destroyed the Bucks in Game 6, they made sure he wasn’t going to win Game 7 in a similar fashion. Leaving Williams open at the three to give Tatum more attention seemed like the right idea given his struggles, but it turned out to be the Bucks’ fatal move.
After struggling to find a way to play cohesive team basketball for much of the past few seasons, that’s been the recipe for Boston’s torrid second-half turnaround that has led them to the Eastern Conference Finals. There are nights where Tatum or Brown take control and guide them to a win, but more often than not, it takes the entire team to help them win games.
For example, in Game 6, Tatum got all the attention for his legendary performance, but Boston won the game because he got help from Brown and Marcus Smart (both had 20+ points), while Giannis scored nearly half of his team’s points. In Game 4, Al Horford saved Boston’s season with a ridiculous 16-point outburst in the fourth quarter. Without that game, Tatum probably doesn’t have the freedom to torch the Bucks in Game 6.
This all loops back to Udoka, who successfully got the Celtics to buy into the team he wanted to build. This issue had plagued Boston teams for the past few years, and it seems like they have finally overcome it now. Udoka had faith in his entire team, not just his stars in Tatum or Brown, and it may have been the deciding factor in this series.
The Celtics' role players were crucial
Looking back on it now, Boston’s depth helped them overcome the individual greatness of Antetokounmpo on the other side of the court. Antetokounmpo was a one-man wrecking crew throughout this series. The problem was he never got any consistent help from his teammates.
Jrue Holiday was occasionally great, but he struggled with his efficiency throughout the series, and he was invisible for most of Games 6 & 7. Pat Connaughton was the only player on Milwaukee aside from Giannis and Holiday to average double-digit points throughout the series. Even then, he reverted to his hit-or-miss ways in Game 7, as he missed all five of his three-point shots.
As previously mentioned, it was all about depth for Boston. They got tremendous contributions from guys up and down their roster. We mentioned Smart, Horford, and Williams, but it doesn’t stop there. Derrick White had a phenomenal series, even though he was awful in Game 7. Payton Pritchard picked up the slack in the deciding game after struggling for much of the series, chipping in with 14 points off the bench. Even Daniel Theis, who filled in for Robert Williams, had stretches where he didn’t look completely incompetent (11 points on 5-5 shooting in Game 5).
The attention always goes to the superstars, but this series was a battle of the benches. Boston won this series because their entire team stepped up, whereas Milwaukee only got Antetokounmpo and occasionally Holiday. Their team mentality has brought them to the Eastern Conference Finals, and they will need to keep it up if they want to beat the Miami Heat and move on to the NBA Finals.