“Let it Fly” — Boston Celtics Outlast Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7, Advance to East Finals
The Boston Celtics defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7 of the East Semis on Sunday afternoon. As the series unfolded, Milwaukee’s plan became clear: make everyone not named Jayson or Jaylen beat them.
In Game 4, Boston’s Al Horford came through with 30 points on 5 of 7 from deep. Most of those three-pointers. were wide open because the Bucks remained camped out in the paint. Coach Ime Udoka repeatedly stressed: “Take what they give you. Let it fly.” Horford, who turns 36 in two weeks, carefully managed his body throughout the offseason and played in only 8 of the team’s 15 back-to-back games this season. The attention to his health paid dividends in this series. When Robert Williams went out, Horford, Grant Williams and Daniel Theis all stepped in. With Milwaukee clogging the paint with the gigantic Brook Lopez and the enormous wingspan of Giannis, long-range shooting became an absolute necessity.
Horford’s 5 three-pointers in Game 4 and the combination of Grant Williams and Horford defending Giannis allowed Boston to even the series at 2–2. Game 5 was too brutal to detail. The Celtics had Game 5 and let it slip away in the 4th quarter.
The way the Celtics came out in Game 6 gave fans reassurance that they were beyond frustrated, indeed highly motivated to redeem themselves. In Game 5 they’d let a lead evaporate like they’d done repeatedly in the first half of the season. It wasn’t all on the Celtics. The Bucks stole a game with some incredible defensive plays by Jrue Holiday, and Giannis gave them enough to put them in position to steal it. But…it was an agonizing loss.
Game 6 started well for Boston and built a 10-point lead by halftime, leaving the Bucks exhausted beyond Giannis. The Celtics have an MVP-level player of their own in Jayson Tatum. Tatum went off for 46 points in Game 6, matching, connecting on 7 of 15 from deep, many contested shots in which he used his extension to get a cleaner look when there wasn’t a better shot available. 46 points on 32 attempts. Giannis had 44 points on 30 attempts. They neutralized each other. Grant Williams took 3 shots in Game 6. Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart combined to hit 9 of 16 threes in Game 6, while Milwaukee had no help for Giannis beyond Jrue Holiday. Boston’s defense has been phenomenal since January. Holding Milwaukee to 7 of 29 from deep in Game 6 was essential.
Grant Williams, temporarily “Grant Curry,” shot 12 three-pointers in the first half of Game 7. If you’d told me this before tip-off, I would’ve been terrified. Williams came into the NBA as a defensive-minded combo forward. In three seasons, his three-point percentage has climbed dramatically. Rookie year: 25% on 1.4 3s per game. 2nd season: 37% on 2.0 3s per game. This year: 41% on 3.4 3s per game.
Normally, you’d be happy with a 40% 3-pt shooter taking wide open threes. But Milwaukee was consciously leaving him so wide-open in the hopes of getting into his head, letting doubt creep in. Again…he’s only been a “shooter” for two years. Most of his basketball life, his hoops identity has been: gritty, physical defender and rebounder.
In Games 1–6 of the Milwaukee series, here are Grant Williams’ 3-point numbers:
Game 1: 2 of 4, Game 2: 6 of 9, Game 3: 1 of 6
Game 4: 1 of 5, Game 5: 0 of 2, Game 6: 0 of 1
Williams was 2 of his last 14 attempts from deep heading into Game 7. On the other hand, he shot 8 of 13 at home in Games 1 and 2. Most NBA players tend to shoot better at home.
- The 1st shot of the game for Boston: Grant Williams makes an open 3-pointer
- The 2nd shot: Tatum misses a contested 17-footer
- The 3rd shot: Grant misses an open 3-pointer
- The 4th shot: Marcus Smart misses an open 27-foot 3-pointer
- The 5th shot: Jaylen misses a contested layup
- The 6th shot: Grant misses an open 3-pointer
- The 7th shot: Horford blocked at rim by Lopez
- The 8th shot: Jaylen misses a mid-range jumper.
Four minutes and thirty seconds into the game, with the Bucks up 10–3, it was clear the game would be won or lost for Boston by everyone not named Jayson and Jaylen hitting open 3-pointers…and by wearing down the human wrecking ball known as Giannis. Anyone who wants to criticize Giannis’ play in Game 7 is painfully unaware of how energy works in an NBA game. Players might be amazingly resilient and play through exhaustion, but the amount of energy Giannis was forced to expend in this series — due in part to the absence of Khris Middleton — was beyond realistic. The extra rest between Games 1 and 2 helped. Games 3 through Games 7 were played every other day. The 4th quarter of Game 6 and the entire second half of Game 7, Giannis finally wore down. In addition, the entire Bucks roster looked worn down. Shooters miss when their legs are tired. The Bucks shot 4 of 33 from deep in Game 7. Historically awful shooting from everyone except for Bobby Portis, who made 2 of 3. Giannis was a force of nature in the 1st quarter, piling up nearly a triple double by mid-way through the 2nd.
The Celtics were down 37–32 midway through the 2nd quarter. The tension of Game 7 was in the air. The fans were waiting to explode. The condensation from the ice beneath the court was making the court slippery (How is this still an issue like it’s been for decades in the Garden on warm spring days?)
Williams made 2 of his last 14 from deep, heading into Game 7. He made the first shot of the game, then he missed his next three from deep. The Celtics were tight. Grant Williams was wide open. Finally…the lid came off the damn rim. In the post-game press conference, Williams referenced the entire team boosting his confidence, from Udoka to everyone else, “Let it Fly. You got it.”
If you listen to Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, or Grant Williams talk about Ime Udoka, you understand how influential the team-wide concept of trust has become to these Celtics. After 7 years of playing basketball around the world after college, Udoka became an NBA regular at age 28, with Portland. He played four years with the Spurs, earning minutes with his intense defense and corner-three-point shooting. 3-and-D when the concept was still somewhat new. Udoka was the player waiting in the corner for Manu or Tony Parker to find him. Experiencing that kind of team-wide trust as both a player and then a coach with San Antonio, has informed Udoka’s coaching philosophy.
Trust on an NBA court is complicated. Young players dominate as young players. The point of the game is to score more than the other team. When you can score easily, you learn how to dominate through scoring. For most NBA superstars, it takes time to recognize the limitations of wanting to do it yourself. That there are in fact four teammates that you have to consistently trust. That by trusting them, you are raising everyone’s level of play. It starts with defense. It’s easier to trust on defense, when the goal is always the same: stop the other team from scoring. Switching defenses are inherently trusting each other more. We all got this. Take turns. Communicate. This version of the Celtics is built on trust. They’ve had success before. They made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017, 2018 and 2020. Tatum and Brown have been together since that 2017–2018 season. However…this team has been playing differently since January. Since Jaylen’s hamstring healed and the COVID absences finally subsided. They’ve dominated the second half of the season with defense and with that trust that allows everyone to flourish. It’s easy to forget that rumors of Marcus Smart’s imminent departure were loud in December. The team was 18–21 and the lack of ball movement (no Derrick White) was a problem at times. Not any more.
Now the Celtics get to face the Miami Heat in the East Finals. A chance at redemption after losing in the bubble-version of the playoffs in 2020.
Let it fly, Grant Curry. Seven went in. Eleven missed. As a team, twenty-two went in. Thirty-three missed. About 35% is the goal. They hit 40%. The Bucks? 12%. But that’s too easy. Wide-open threes go in much more often. Especially when you let it fly.
Grant Williams — Postgame Press Conference — Game 7