Celtics answer a lot of questions with Game 1 dominance

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MILWAUKEE — Jaylen Brown had to know Giannis Antetokounmpo was lurking but he didn’t seem fazed in the least.

When the Milwaukee Bucks left Brown alone while double-teaming on the opposite side of the floor, Boston’s springy third-year wing burst into the paint and, after teammate Gordon Hayward delivered a little jump pass, Brown threw down a two-handed jam while Antetokounmpo scrambled to contest early in the fourth quarter of Boston’s emphatic 112-90 Game 1 triumph.

The sequence — snapshotted by a photographer’s lens — captured the essence of Sunday’s game. In the painful weeklong crawl after both teams swept their first-round series, the Celtics heard how they had feasted on an inferior Pacers team and how things would be different with Antetokounmpo on the other side There were questions about whether these Celtics had truly turned a corner from their regular-season woes.

And with one emphatic, posterizing performance, the Celtics declared that, yes,  they are very much for real.

The Celtics would have been OK to question themselves entering Sunday’s game. This was the league’s best team over the course of an 82-game season. Antetokounmpo was the league’s best player, and you could make the case for Defensive Player of the Year consideration as well.

But, much like Brown driving at the hoop, they didn’t seem intimidated. , Brown’s dunk left teammates dancing in front of the Boston bench and it all sorta announced (loudly) that these Celtics, with a healthy Hayward and Kyrie Irving along for the ride now, have not altered their lofty preseason goals.

"They say we have a bunch of young guys but we’re not young no more,” said Brown. "We’ve been through a lot. We’ve experienced a lot, so our attention to detail, our focus is up, and we’re trying to win. 

"That’s what we’re here for: To win.”

A couple days before Boston trekked to Milwaukee, Brown had noted how Antetokounmpo’s aggressiveness tends to bring the best in Brown himself. But he also noted how, if you’re not aggressive, Antetokounmpo can smell the fear.

Maybe that’s why the fourth-quarter dunk was so notable. It was an emphatic declaration that Boston would not be overwhelmed by having to go on the road against the East’s top seed. Brown stared at Antetokounmpo in the aftermath of the jam but quickly remembered a taunting technical he had gotten for doing the same after a dunk in Boston in December.

He elected instead to get back on defense. After all, that was Boston's other secret to success on Sunday afternoon.

With Al Horford leading the charge, the Celtics limited the Bucks to a measly 26 points in the paint, walling off the lane and challenging the hosts to beat them with jump shots or tough finishes. Antetokounmpo missed 14 of the 21 shots he attempted, with Horford pestering him early and often.

No sequence was more jarring (and telling) than when Horford and the Celtics twice swatted Antetokounmpo midway through the third quarter. The second swat by Horford left the ball caroming high off the floor like it had been shot out of a cannon. Horford finished with three of Boston’s 11 swats on the night.

Bottling up Antetokounmpo was not a one-man job. The Celtics got contributions throughout the roster with Horford and back-to-a-reserve-role Aron Baynes taking the lion’s share of reps, but even 6-foot-1 Terry Rozier got the occasional switch to manage and didn’t panic.

“[You have to ] guard him real hard. He’s a heckuva player, he’s going to make unbelievable plays, his name is Greek Freak for a reason,” said Rozier. "You’ve just got to make it as tough as possible, with a lot of help. Try to be there, and that’s what we did.”

It was somewhat fair to wonder if Boston’s first-round defense had been so notably stout in part because a star-less Pacers team had few reliable scoring options, particularly late in games. But the Bucks were an offensive juggernaut for much of the season and the Celtics held them to 90 points on 34.8% shooting in Game 1.

Marcus Morris, who had re-elevated to a starting role and played with remarkable offensive unselfishness and defensive intensity, was asked after the game if this was as good a defensive stretch as the Celtics had played all year.

“Whatchu think?” Morris asked an inquisitor, who confirmed it probably was Boston’s best stretch of defense.

"There you go,” said Morris.

Horford was the star; Irving hit an array of absurd shots — from deep floaters to post fadeaways — while putting up 26 points and 11 assists; and Hayward continued to show glimpses of the former All-Star, particularly with his ability to create for himself and others when Boston needed offense.

But the Celtics got contributions across the board. Brown continued his phenomenal postseason while elevating to a starting role in place of injured Marcus Smart. He finished with 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Rozier chipped in 11 points and nine rebounds in less than 20 minutes and didn’t lose himself in the individual matchup with Eric Bledsoe that drew so much attention a year ago.

The Celtics acknowledged that Sunday’s win does not ensure sustained success in this series. But they carried themselves with an air of confidence, like a team that fully expected to be here even as others questioned their recent surge.

"I think we have an appreciation for the group we have,” said Irving. "We’ve spent at least two years together now, everyone is relatively healthy, other than [Marcus Smart].  I think that we have a good rhythm of the expectations for each other, and then going out there and executing. 

“[Coach] Brad [Stevens] does a great job putting us in a great position in terms of the game plan and preparation. It’s our job to go out there and execute. We obviously try to get the best out of each other and I think the communication on the bench has improved vastly since the playoffs have started. Just everyone feels good, so I think that has helped as well.”

And having Playoff Al doesn’t hurt, either.

“For me, just everything gets heightened so much. Just the intensity, the fans, I just think the focus level goes way up,” said Horford. "For our group, that was something that I feel like we had a hard time with in the regular season after some of us last year going through a run and being in these types of positions and then coming into the regulars season it was tough to get to that stage. 

"I just think that, once the postseason started, I think we all really have been able to lock in, and Kyrie has been in our ear, even weeks before the regular season ended, about the commitment and what we needed to do as a group and how we needed to prepare and be better. I think that all the guys understood what he was trying to tell us and have taken up on that challenge in trying to be better and trying to do the little things to get us to this point.”

The Celtics gave us little to believe they were a championship-caliber team during the regular season. It might have even been fair to be a bit leery before Sunday.

But Game 1 told us a lot about this team. And their demeanor afterward only confirmed that they’re not overly enthused about one dominant showing.

No, these Celtics are here to win. And more than just one game.

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