Celtics Sending Crystal Clear Message With NBA Finals Just One Win Away

Boston knows the job isn't finished


The Celtics are one win away from reaching the NBA Finals.

It’s familiar territory for Boston, a team whose 2017-18 season ended with a gut-wrenching loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, but the vibes are dissimilar this time around. And that’s a good thing for the Celtics.

“Yeah, it does,” Jayson Tatum acknowledged Wednesday night, when asked after the Celtics’ Game 5 win over the Heat in Miami whether this year’s playoff run feels different.

“My rookie year, being up 3-2 (against Cleveland), you know, obviously different team now. I’m a lot better, (Jaylen Brown) is. We’re just older. And we’ve been through those tough times.”

The Celtics’ clash with the Cavaliers in May 2018 marked the second consecutive season the teams locked horns in the Eastern Conference finals. Cleveland eliminated Boston (pre-Tatum) in five games in 2017.

The Celtics were well positioned in 2018, taking the first two games in Boston and later winning Game 5 to seize a 3-2 lead before Game 6 in Cleveland. But the Cavs closed the series with two straight victories, sending the C’s into the offseason and securing an NBA Finals date with the Golden State Warriors.

Those same Warriors could await this season, as Golden State entered Thursday with a 3-1 series lead over the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference finals. But the Celtics seem hell-bent on making sure it’s them, not a worthy opponent, who reaches the last dance.

This was apparent when the Celtics swept Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets in Round 1. It was evident when Boston overcame a 3-2 series deficit against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in Round 2. And it’s obvious with the Green returning to TD Garden for Game 6 against the Heat on Friday night.

“Don’t look past them,” Tatum said of the Celtics’ mindset after pushing the Heat to the brink of elimination. “Don’t believe what you guys say on TV — that we’re going to the championship — because this is far from over.

“We talked about it. We just went into Milwaukee and won a very big Game 6. So, we know that it’s possible. We came with the mindset (in Game 5) that it was a must-win game, that we need to carry that over, go into Friday like we’re down 3-2.”

This isn’t to say the Celtics took for granted their recent trips to the Eastern Conference finals, of which there were three in five seasons before the 2021-22 campaign. And we can’t exactly make apples-to-apples comparisons given some of the turnover in that span, most notably at the head-coaching spot, where Ime Udoka is in his first season after replacing Brad Stevens.

Still, it’s hard not to notice the Celtics’ general disposition with an NBA Finals berth at their fingertips. It’s far different, for the better, than previous years. Boston finally might get over the hump, yet the team isn’t allowing itself to get caught up in that reality until the mission actually is accomplished.

“Nothing changes,” Udoka said of his message as the Celtics return to Boston with a chance to close out the Heat. “We had to come out with the right mentality after a win, and we did that (in Game 5). We wanted to do the same, close it out at home. Know the urgency of not coming back here (to Miami).

“For our guys, it’s just one more step, continue to grind it out. Like I said, we wear teams out defensively and make it extra hard on them mentally and physically. If we do that, we put ourselves in good shape. Not just give up those 39-point quarters or turnovers that give teams hope and life. We know what we’re all about.”

Let’s be clear, the Celtics are cognizant of the opportunity in front of them. They’re perhaps just better equipped nowadays to handle the pressure associated with being in that position.

“For us, I don’t think anybody’s looking at getting to the Finals,” Udoka said. “We know what the deal is, what the task at hand is.”

Translation: There’s still work to be done.

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