Sunday afternoon, there was no place louder than the TD Garden in Boston.
From the green swamp of t-shirts draped over every yellow seat reading ’18,624 Strong’, local legend Kevin McHale’s humongous presence on the sideline, or a fan base simply sick of all the injuries this season, Celtics country had plenty of reasons to shout their team to a 13-107 victory against the Milwaukee Bucks in their opening playoff game of 2018.
This was supposed to be a team of talented youngsters led by All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, arguably the most important part of their team, and free agent stud Gordon Hayward. But instead, the beginning of Boston’s campaign saw Hayward go down within five minutes, and conclude with Irving’s injured knee ruling him out for the postseason. As a result, the Bucks have the best player in this series, fellow All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he did his best to upset proceedings here with 35 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and three steals before fouling out late in overtime.
That foul-out was just another moment when the Sea of Green could roar in the demise of their opponent.
Boston sports fans know how to get up for games like this, and following the contest - a game that, for the majority of the time, failed to inspire - the overwhelming feeling in the crowd was, ‘did we just witness a game seven?’ The home fans who wore their shirts and dutifully roared when the Jumbotron told them to get loud, seethed when Marcus Morris got tangled up with John Henson for a loose ball in the second period, and roared to deafening levels when Terry Rozier crossed up Eric Bledsoe and hit what everyone thought was the game-winning three-pointer with 0.5 seconds remaining.
As it turned out, it wasn't. Khris Middleton flung the ball up with half a second remaining, the ball hitting nothing but net, extending the game. After the replay review, the Garden was for the first time all afternoon in silence.
But with his clutch three, and soon afterwards again when he hit both free throws with 18 seconds remaining in the extra period as fans chanted ‘Terry! Terry! Terry!’, Rozier dutifully handled the absence of Irving and grabbed his moment, even at the second instance.
The Bucks entered this match-up off the back of a shellacking from the red hot Philadelphia 76ers on the final day of the regular season, a performance head coach Joe Prunty had bemoaned while his players exuded joy in the locker room at the thought of facing a weakened Boston. Repeating their act from Wells Fargo Center, they looked fairly uninspired on offence whenever the ball was not in the hands of Antetokounmpo, just as been their problem for the entirety of the regular season. Time and time again, Giannis was forced into a funnel by the Celtics defence, and his two options were limited to searching in bewilderment for a willing teammate, or travelling.
Perhaps a sign of things to come over the course of the day, Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry had trouble getting his son past security toward the road locker room an hour before tip, the palaver lasting several minutes and involving three Celtics officials before eventually he was granted access. Lasry’s message was simply that he owned the team and this was his son, but just as no one on the Bucks could own the game down the stretch, he was stifled by the Celtics.
Around the time of Lasry’s predicament, Jayson Tatum, making his playoff debut, seemed fairly calm in the Celtics locker room when he asked Rozier if he had a tattoo on his wrist and whether the process of having it done was painful. Rozier, who has tattoos everywhere, said all of it hurt. Before such a big game, the Celtics were extremely loose - perhaps it was that quiet confidence that saw them make so many big clutch plays, including Rozier's three and Tatum's own game-saving block.
For the Bucks, there were some small victories. Once the team as a whole stopped turning the ball over and began running the floor, the Bucks were able to unleash Khris Middleton, who might be the best shooter in this series. He finished with 31 points, including that miracle three in the closing stages of the fourth; however, he was not helped out at all by Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker, a duo who must do more if Milwaukee wish to compete in this series. On paper, they should, but offensive cohesion has not been a strength of the Bucks in recent times.
One thing that paper cannot produce is a loyal fan base, and that may be why these Celtics ultimately get past the opening round. Milwaukee, it seemed, were unsettled by the home crowd, Antetokounmpo fouling out in the late stages to huge cheers while a certain sequence of calls for the Bucks did nothing but motivate this crowd even more.
‘Get Loud!’ was the message and, oh, did the Celtics fans do their job.
So did their team, who are coached brilliantly by Brad Stevens. Any time the offence stagnated, he shut it down with a timeout, or gave his youngsters a pat on the back. His task is perhaps greater than that of his inexperienced roster, which was led by Al Horford’s solid-as- always performance of 24 points and 12 rebounds, both leading the Celtics.
Milwaukee may have staged a late run, but there was more heart and passion from the home team and their crowd. The Bucks can only control their effort, and it will have to be better Tuesday for game two, at what will be another loud and proud Garden.