The Boston Celtics were up 27 in the final moments of the first half during Saturday’s Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks when Robert Williams III got sent to apply full-court pressure.
The Atlanta Hawks had already been bottled up for the first 24 minutes, and now the Celtics were dispatching their 6-foot-11 free safety -- or maybe "freak safety" is more appropriate -- to make just getting the ball over half court a chore.
The Hawks, sped up by Williams III’s hounding, eventually turned the ball over, much to the excitement of veteran Al Horford. Jayson Tatum hit a 3-pointer to make it a 30-point lead at the intermission.
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The Celtics took their foot off the gas in the aftermath, but their first-half domination told the story of a team hellbent on setting a postseason tone. Boston players have not shied away from the notion that this is a team on a mission.
"I think last year there was expectation, like there always is when you're a Celtic," Horford told NBC Sports Boston. "But we didn't know how far, or how good we could be as a team. We were able to put it together.
"This year the expectations are there. We know how good we are, we know what we're capable of, and what we need to do. So it's a much clearer picture. And we’ve been in a lot of difficult positions because of last year, so that experience is gonna help us."
The Celtics have been waiting 10 months for a chance to make another run at a title. Preseason drama, including an unexpected second knee surgery for Williams III and the suspension of coach Ime Udoka, forced the team to lock in a bit at the start of the season. But the truth is that nothing the team could have accomplished over the first 82 games of this journey was going to define the 2022-23 season, and these Celtics sometimes lost their focus along the way.
Boston players believe the playoffs will deliver the team’s best basketball. For 10 months, coming up short in the Finals gnawed at this team. Now they can finally do something about it.
"It kind of keeps you up at night. Sometimes, it's like an itch, like anticipation," said Jaylen Brown. "But I definitely sense it in Jayson right now. He's more locked in, he's more vocal. Like, you could hear it in his voice. The tone of his voice has changed. He's serious, and as am I."
The Celtics got a friendly reminder that, as good as they can be when focused, they can’t relent. The Hawks made a couple second-half charges in Game 1, though never trimmed that lead to single digits. Boston can make its life easier by being locked in for the entirety of Tuesday’s Game 2 at TD Garden.
But if you were worried about the Celtics limping into the postseason against an inferior opponent, know that the sting of last year’s Finals loss is all the motivation this team needs to avoid a letdown.
"That was a big fuel for our group, for me," said Horford. "We understand that we weren't able to finish how we wanted to and, throughout this season, that has been a big driving factor. Now that [the playoffs are here] again, I'm just excited about this opportunity that we have. We have our team, our full team. We feel pretty good about the road ahead."
It was the soon-to-be 37-year-old Horford who snapped the Celtics back to reality as the team’s big Game 1 lead dwindled on Saturday. Horford knows that these opportunities don’t come often and wants to make sure the Celtics take advantage of a legitimate chance to accomplish their loftiest goals.
Having a healthy Williams III on the court to start this postseason adventure only makes Boston that much more dangerous.
"[The postseason] just brings a different demeanor, honestly. After last year, a more revengeful demeanor for sure for us," said Williams III. "[Playoff intensity is] just a great feeling, man. It's something that you definitely don't take for granted. I feel like my teammates and our staff … we know how rare it is [to have a shot to win it all] …
"You kind of wish you could fast forward to the great ending. But you have to take every game, every series, and go through all of the steps."
Williams III said the team did a good job using last year’s Finals loss to motivate the team at times this season. But the playoffs have brought all those painful emotions rushing back. This team needs to harness them as jet fuel.
"I feel like now we're definitely having a little more flashbacks. A couple more bad dreams about [last season]," said Williams III.
"To be honest, man, I can just see the hunger. Like I said, last year ended terribly in our eyes. So just the hunger, man. We’re having a couple more flashbacks about last season … I feel like it's just gonna rev up the intensity for us."