The Celtics can do it. They deserve our trust.


Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Celtics’ performance in Game 6 is exactly what their fans were hoping for. Jim Davis/Globe Staff


In the biggest game of their season, the Celtics had heart, composure, determination, short memories and absolutely no fear of the moment.

And now they have a Game 7.

Jayson Tatum and Giannis Antetokounmpo engaged in a duel reminiscent of 2008’s LeBron James/Paul Pierce and 1988’s Dominique Wilkins/Larry Bird, and it was the Celtics’ rising superstar who came into play after his 108-95 win on Friday night 6 already stopped epic semifinal series of the Eastern Conference.

Tatum scored 46 points, including 16 on 5-of-7 shooting in the fourth quarter as he held defending champion Bucks at bay with a series of 3-pointers and plastic-man drives to the basket. Antetokounmpo finished Sunday afternoon’s Game 7 at the TD Garden with 44 points, 20 rebounds, 6 assists and knowing he has to somehow muster up a little more brilliance.

No matter how Game 7 ends, don’t you dare point out again that this Celtics team lacks mental or physical toughness. The difficulty of this game was immense: Game 6 against the defending champions on Milwaukee’s home hardwood, just two painful days after the Celtics blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter with a Game 5 loss. That loss was soul-crushing, and not many teams would have recovered from it.

So what did the Celtics do? oh not much They just went out there and played like the best versions of themselves. Tatum has that superstar ability to play within yourself and still get points, and it was a patient and confident performance. But he ended up going full-on I-ve-got-this mode, and that was a good thing because the Bucks were shaking the Celtics.

Near the middle of the fourth quarter, the Bucks had cut the Celtics’ lead to 85-81 with an Antetokounmpo-3 pointer, and the Fiserv Forum pulsed with the fans’ anticipation of snatching another game from the Celtics.

But Tatum wouldn’t allow it. He buried a corner jumper at the bottom of the shot clock (87-81), then, after a spectacular reverse layup by Pat Connaughton (when did he morph into Dr. J?), he sank a 3-pointer into George Hill’s face – again late in the shot clock – for a 90-83 lead. It was a shooting masterclass and it gave the Celtics a chance to breathe.

It must be noted that Tatum had the kind of support from his teammates that Antetokounmpo didn’t have. Marcus Smart scored 21 points — 14 in the defining first quarter, when he buried 4 of 5 threes — and gave away 7 assists without conceding a turnover. It was a remarkable reaction after his disastrous last two minutes in Game 5. Especially for a player who said he hadn’t slept for the past two nights while reflecting on what he had done and what he needed to do. On Friday he got relief and hopefully a good night’s sleep.

Jaylen Brown contributed 22 points, especially early in the third quarter as the Celtics extended their 10-point halftime lead. It was Brown’s 3-pointer from a pass from Smart that gave the Celtics their biggest lead, 68-50, at the 7:20 mark of the third. Brown still gets in trouble when he goes into my-turn mode and over-dribbles, but the Celtics are lucky to have a second scorer with his skill and reliability.

A special shout out has to go to Derrick White, who scored 9 points, defended tenaciously and seemed to get away with half a dozen clutch rebounds, steals and loose balls in the second half. With Grant Williams suddenly looking lost on offense, White’s skillful play closed the gap.

The overall performance of the Celtics in Game 6 is what you were hoping for but didn’t dare expect given the way Game 5 went. And now here come the two greatest words of anticipation in sports – Game 7 – between these fierce, somewhat similar teams. This series isn’t quite on par with the brute-force vs. blunt-object of, say, the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals between the Celtics and the 76ers, the most gruesome series I’ve ever seen. But it might get there once game 7 is complete.

What is that? What can we expect from Game 7? You mean in addition to extreme and constant fear? During Friday’s ESPN broadcast, Mike Breen suggested his streak is so great it’s a shame it can’t go past 11 games. Eleven games? From those 48-minute stress tests? no thanks mike seven is a lot. Seven is perfect.

I admit some concerns about the afternoon start time. The Celtics have a habit of starting sluggishly at daytime tip-offs. But they will play on their home pitch in front of their passionate fans and they are the more complete team by a small but relevant margin. Yes, Giannis will be a handful when they fall off the rafters, but they’re used to that.

The Bucks are worthy champions. You will not go quietly. But they will go. The Celtics can do it. They deserve our trust. And if they play Game 7 like they did Game 6, they will earn so much more. The Celtics can do it. They deserve our trust.

Matthew Hallett

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