CHICAGO – This season has been one filled with teachable moments for the Boston Celtics that have collectively brought them to where they are now, one win away from advancing to Conference semifinals for the first time under fourth-year coach Brad Stevens.
Playing in elimination games isn’t totally foreign to most of Boston's core players.
But unlike each of the previous win-or-go-home games, the Celtics aren’t looking to stave off elimination.
Because of that, tonight’s Game 6 matchup against Chicago presents a different kind of challenge unlike anything this team has seen before.
Avery Bradley has been on both sides of the elimination pendulum, having experienced the joy in moving on to the next round as well as the disappointment that comes with a loss.
His focus tonight is to simply keep doing what the Celtics have done in the last three games - all wins - against Chicago.
“The key’s been playing consistent,” Bradley told reporters on Thursday. “You know, the first two games, we obviously were a little emotional and we weren’t playing team basketball out there.”
Bradley’s “emotional” comment was in reference to the death of Isaiah Thomas’ 22-year-old sister, Chyna Thomas, who was killed in a one-car accident on April 15 – the day before Boston played its first game of the playoffs.
It was a game in which the Celtics were dealing with a cacophony of emotions that left them playing a disjointed brand of basketball that ultimately factored in them losing the first two games of this series.
A change of scenery seemed to be just what the Celtics needed as they reeled off road wins in Games 3 and 4, then returned to Boston to capture Game 5 and are now a win away from advancing to the next round of the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
“We were kind of just playing free and not executing our plays on both ends of the floor, our game plans,” Bradley told reporters on Thursday. “I felt like once we were able to slow it down and focus on what we needed to do as a team, and on every detail, we were able to play a lot better.”
But even with improved play, there were questions as to whether they could come back and position themselves to win the series after a horrific start with losses in the first two games at home.
“I wouldn't say doubt. I just thought we had to figure it out,” Boston’s Jae Crowder told reporters on Thursday. “In the playoffs you gotta figure it out pretty fast because if you go down 0-3 it's pretty much over. I just felt like we had to figure it out and we had to come together a little bit more. I think we were a little separated there, a lot of guys weren't on the same page but we got together, all five guys on the court were able to be on the same page and we rode the momentum out.”
But it’s not over.
Boston has had some tough games in this series, but close-out games are usually the toughest ones to win.
Doing it on the road makes the task even more daunting, regardless of how the series had played out up until that point.
“We just have to prepare to play the best that we’ve played yet,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens told reporters on Thursday. “That’s the bottom line. I don’t think there’s a secret formula or magic to it. The magic’s going to be in how you play. So our job is to prepare to play our best game that we’ve played yet.”
Which is yet another lesson learned for this Celtics team as they hope to continue along their quest in what many believe will be a deep postseason journey.