Celtics displaying championship mettle to begin 2022 NBA playoffs

Forsberg: Celtics displaying championship mettle to start playoffs originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

A handful of thoughts while digesting two of the gutsiest wins of the Boston Celtics’ season to open their first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets:

pedal to the mettle

The Celtics’ talent was undeniable. They were the best team in basketball over the final three months of the 2021-22 season. But Boston’s crunch-time struggles, particularly against elite competition, made it fair to be leery about how this team might perform on the pressure-filled playoff stage.

The first two games of the postseason suggest this team might just have championship mettle.

Celtics-Nets takeaways: C’s pull off incredible comeback to take Game 2

The Celtics haven’t played anywhere near their standards for much of the first two games of this series and yet they’ve found a way to win both games. From the poise shown in the final minute of Game 1 to rallying out of a monster hole in Game 2, the Celtics are showing a resilience that we rarely saw in the regular season.

This is what the playoffs are about: grinding through adversity and finding ways to win. And the Celtics are doing that. It might have been the only box they hadn’t stamped on their title-contender bingo card.

Now they have.

degree of difficulty

Drawing the Nets was far from a desirable draw for the Celtics. This isn’t your typical 7 seed. But we can’t help but wonder how beneficial this series might be to whatever Boston accomplishes this postseason.

We can’t stop thinking about what Tracy McGrady said on Wednesday’s Celtics Talk podcast: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have already established themselves as elite players in the NBA but taking down championship-level talent like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving could catapult their confidence and play to new heights.

NBA history is filled with examples of torch passing. Our minds race back to LeBron James having to vanquish the Big Three-era Celtics before he started collecting championships. Maybe the Jays needed to do the same thing. Maybe they had to go through Irving and exorcise some of those 2018-19 demons to get where they want to go.

The Celtics, if they emerge in this series, would also have all sorts of momentum (and homecourt advantage) in a second-round series. The MCL injury for Khris Middleton might complicate matters for the Bucks. The path wasn’t ideal but the Celtics bet on themselves and could be rewarded richly.

A two-way star

The first three quarters of Game 2 were some of Tatum’s roughest minutes of the season. He tried to force the issue on offense too much and just seemed generally out of sync whenever he tried to attack.

But one of the hallmarks of the best players in the league is being able to impact the game when you’re not scoring. And Tatum shined in that regard. He used the attention he drew to generate 10 assists but really starred on the defensive end.

Tatum defended Durant for 10 minutes, 33 seconds of matchup time and held him to 4 points on 0-of-7 shooting with three turnovers and a block. Nets players were 2-of-11 shooting overall when defended by Tatum, who used his length of him to routinely fluster Nets shooters.

“I think I figured out other ways,” said Tatum. “I didn’t score 40 but I felt like I impacted us and helped us win the game. I got to give them credit. They were physical in the beginning and obviously made it tougher than the other night but it was to be expected. It’s the playoffs. I’m showing emotion and I want to win — we all do. I get frustrated with myself but how we responded, how I responded, I think we responded well tonight, obviously came out with a win. Every game is not going to be perfect and that’s part of it.”

Tatum defended Durant for 10 minutes, 33 seconds of matchup time and held him to 4 points on 0-of-7 shooting with three turnovers and a block. Nets players were 2-of-11 shooting overall when defended by Tatum, who used his length of him to routinely fluster Nets shooters.

Chris Forsberg on Tatum’s elite defense

Lost in the debate about Tatum’s worthiness for an All-NBA first-team slot was his two-way impact. Not only is he one of the NBA’s elite scorers but his defense of him is criminally underrated, especially when he ratchets it up on the playoff stage. This is what separates Tatum from some of his young, high-scoring counterparts of him.

Batman (and Robin) answered the call

Overshadowed in the second-half explosion, the Celtics might not have even had a chance to rally if not for Grant Williams. After the Celtics’ role players had a bit of a dud in Game 1, Williams singlehandedly carried Boston at a time the Nets could have torn the game open.

Williams had a pair of late first-quarter 3-pointers then swatted a shot on the final possession of the frame to keep Boston’s deficit at single digits after 12 minutes. Williams finished with 17 points on 4-of-4 shooting with 6 rebounds and 2 blocks.

Most importantly, Williams aided Boston’s defensive efforts. After Bruce Brown lit Brooklyn’s fuse early, Williams held him to 2 points on 1-of-5 shooting. Irving was 1-of-6 shooting when defended by Williams.

Boston’s role players were outstanding in this game. Theis, holding down the starting role in Robert Williams’ absence, bounced back from a rough Game 1 to hit every 6-foot bunny the Nets gave him while overhelping on drives by the Jays. Payton Pritchard provided the necessary floor-spacing for Boston in the second half and gave the team its first — and only — lead of the game.

How Grant Williams made Celtics history with great Game 2 performance

Even when one part of the bench has struggled (in Game 2 it was Derrick White in early foul trouble), the Celtics’ ability to get help elsewhere with only an eight-man rotation has been impressive.

“Grant’s locked in right now,” said Brown. “Grant, Payton, they were really the heroes of this game. They played well in stretches that we needed them to play well. Our backs were against the wall a little bit in the first half, we had some trouble getting it going, and Grant made play after play. So Grant is playing well right now, Payton’s playing well right now. Gotta keep it rolling, next guy up. Gotta be able to just step in and make plays.”

Even Kyrie is praising the C’s

Maybe the most jarring part of Game 2 was Irving showering his former team with praise after their comeback win. Irving was offering up the sort of team-wide bouquets typically reserved for when a team closes out a series.

Tomase: With C’s in control, is Kyrie Irving about to quit on the Nets?

“I just think the timing is right,” Irving said of Boston. “Their window is now for these young guys on this team that have matured. They’ve been through series together, been through seasons together, they’ve been through battles together. And I got a chance to experience some of that, now being on the opposite end and going against a healthy Celtics team — without Robert Williams — but you’re just seeing there’s a difference in their verve, there’s a difference in the way they approach the game.

“And also they have a set offense and defense that they rely on. Ime [Udoka has] been a huge part of that. But you’ve got to give credit to that guy that’s sitting in the president’s role as well now. All of the sudden we don’t get to see him as often, Brad Stevens definitely has a lot to do with that.”

Yes, the man who used to pin so much of Boston’s struggles on the young guys (or just about anybody else in the organization) is now heaping praise on the Celtics’ young core.

Note: Games 3-6 of the Brooklyn Nets-Boston Celtics series will be aired on NBC Sports Boston and can also be streamed on NBCSportsBoston.com or with the MyTeams App, which you can download below.

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