BOSTON — Late in the second quarter on Wednesday night, Giannis Antetokounmpo airballed a free throw with the Bucks up by 15. The crowd took startled notice, and as the reigning league MVP practiced his stroke between attempts, the noise level rose in anticipation from the TD Garden faithful.
It was the loudest the building had gotten to that point, one of those fun moments where a crowd can instantly sense it had the chance to actually make a difference in the game. And it certainly appeared to work — Antetokounmpo’s second attempt was nearly identical to his first, one that didn’t touch the rim and made the crowd explode.
Giannis air balled back to back free throwspic.twitter.com/wPyWXOHJ24
— Yahoo Sports NBA (@YahooSportsNBA) October 31, 2019
Clowning on Antetokounmpo looked like it was going to be one of the only moments Celtics fans would enjoy on Wednesday — it came late in a half where the Bucks led by as much as 19. Shortly before the half, Giannis drew a foul on a three and, despite the jeers, hit all three shots from the charity stripe. There’s only so much you can do to stop the Greek Freak, and for a while, it appeared that Boston was short on options and couldn’t slow down the dead-eyed shooters Milwaukee used to take them down in the postseason back in May.
Our sense of time might be irrevocably broken in 2019, but watching the first half of Celtics-Bucks was a brief reminder that the NBA offseason only lasted about three months, and that all the player movement and free agent shuffling didn’t change absolutely everything about the league. The Celtics, despite swapping out Kyrie Irving for Kemba Walker and Al Horford for [eRrOr: VaLuE nOt FoUnD] were still not as good as the Milwaukee Bucks, who have Antetokounmpo and, despite losing Malcolm Brogdon, are still an excellent team.
In fact, the only thing that seemed clear about the Celtics before the start of the 2019-20 season was that, much to the chagrin of many fans outside of Boston, the team is extremely likable. Tacko Fall was a preseason darling for the squad, drawing huge cheers and even larger complimentary down jackets for branded goodwill gestures. Weird Celtics Twitter has played a role in turning a collection of their players into a silly bunch, whether they’re a team veteran like Marcus Smart or a newcomer like Grant Williams. And while Walker may not have been the best free agent on the market, nor does he possess a gigantic personality that commands attention when he’s not playing (although his fashion sense, in fairness, is impeccable), he was absolutely among the most respected players to move from city-to-city in July.
Walker is gracious and charismatic, one of the rare superstars so highly-regarded that the Hornets franchise that refused to offer him a supermax contract looks much worse than the superstar who left the small-time market behind for Boston. When you consider how quickly fans side with franchises over players, that fact alone means there’s something special about Walker’s allure. Add all of this up and it really is hard to imagine anyone currently on the Celtics becoming the next name on the green “Kyrie Is A Douche” shirts vendors vindictively sell outside the Garden on game days.
None of that, however, necessarily translates into wins. The Celtics need a lot of things to go right this season for them to be real contenders. Replacing the presence of Horford in the locker room and on the defensive end of the floor is one of the biggest question marks there is, along with whether Gordon Hayward can be closer to the version of himself that earned a max contract than the one that spent last year recovering from a catastrophic leg injury. Then there’s whether Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum can both take a step forward as NBA players and move closer to stardom.
But on a night without Brown in the lineup it was Tatum with 25 points, Walker with a team-high 32, and Hayward with 21-10-7 in a surprising 116-105 comeback win over the Eastern Conference favorites. Forget that Boston had just eight points from its bench and the first half was a litany of missed shots and bad defense, the Celtics inexplicably clawed their way back into the game and took control in the fourth quarter thanks to ruthless defense and, if you believe everyone involved, the power of positive thinking.
“They started feeling good, they started making shots, they started getting shots,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of the game’s third quarter. “Everything flipped.”
There was obviously far more at play, but that’s what it felt like on Wednesday night: something flipped. The Celtics found a way to get points inside during the second half despite Milwaukee collapsing the paint and trying to smother Boston with their size. Walker found ways to get to the rim and his teammates finally started hitting shots from the perimeter. He pushed the pace after Boston’s defense forced Milwaukee into bad shots on the other end of the floor. And it wasn’t just one player carrying the load for the Celtics as the Bucks’ lead slowly caved in.
“Kemba’s a great player, but they played through Hayward a little bit, Tatum made some big shots,” Budenholzer noted. “So those three guys, they mixed and matched well.”
Tatum stuffs Giannis and then knocks down a 3 for the lead! pic.twitter.com/EvG5h0AGPr
— Taylor Snow (@taylorcsnow) October 31, 2019
There is no single moment where everything changed, but the dozens of moments that come together to spark a comeback of this magnitude culminated late in the third quarter, when Tatum swatted Antetokounmpo on one end then hit a jumper to give Boston its first lead since the game’s opening minute. After the three, Tatum low-fived besuited Celtics legend Paul Pierce, who practically stormed the court in celebration. Others tweeted how the comeback felt like the Isaiah Thomas Celtics. But this is the Kemba Walker Celtics now, a group that favors positivity over nostalgia.
“Sometimes all it takes is confidence from other guys and to see some (shots) go in,” Hayward said after the game. “I think it started on the defensive end. We kept getting stops, energy picked up, and that kind of turned it around for us there in the second half.”
If you ask Walker about his teammates, he dishes out nothing but compliments. Marcus Smart is “tough” and shot an “amazing” 5-for-11 from three on Wednesday. Tatum is a “hell of a player” who had a slow start but played “great.” There were even compliments for Antentokunmpo, which set up for praise for the Celtics defense’s efforts to slow him down in the second half.
Hearing Walker talk, it’s easy to see why teammates like him and why the vibe is so different in Boston this year. Intangibles are nice, of course, but results are better. Early in the 2019-20 campaign, it seems like it’s possible the Celtics might get both out of Walker.
“He’s a warrior,” Stevens told reporters about the Celtics’ point guard. “That’s one thing you’ve always known, but you can feel in the huddles. That guy wants to win.”
Asked what he’s already learned about the Celtics this season, Walker said that they’re a team built to win games like they did on Wednesday night. And it’s his job, apparently, to make sure they’re ready to do just that.
“We’re tough,” Walker said. “We’re not going to shy away when things go wrong. We’re gonna win as a team and lose as a team. When things are going bad, one thing I’m gonna try to do is keep us together. That’s the most important thing, for this year, and tonight was a great example of that.”
In a conference where Toronto reigns until dethroned, Giannis and the Bucks remain the favorite, and the Sixers look ready to scrap their way to the Finals, positivity may not be enough. But it’s a welcome change for a team that seemed burdened by expectations and interpersonal drama just a few months ago. On Wednesday night, the vibes led to good basketball and was good enough for a win.
“We could have easily lost that game by a lot, but we kept on talking to each other, keeping each other confident,” Walker said. “That’s going to be important for us this year.”