Forsberg: These Celtics have a swagger, but the Bucks present a tough test


Celtics first-year coach Ime Udoka might have delivered the line of the season earlier this week.

"We’re a basketball team not a track team," Udoka said after this team huddled to start preparations for the Milwaukee Bucks. "We’re not running from people."

It feels like that declaration could be the tagline for the 2021-22 Celtics. At every instance when the Celtics could have chosen an easier path, they ran towards the storm.

When Udoka repeatedly called out his squad for not playing the right way, they didn’t tune him out. When the Celtics stumbled throughout the first three months of the season, the team refused to pack it in. When a potentially less daunting playoff path emerged, the Celtics didn’t downshift and try to game the system.

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Their reward is homecourt advantage against the Bucks when Game 1 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series tips Sunday at TD Garden.

After sweeping aside a Nets team that others seemed eager to avoid, the Celtics arrive at the doormat of their latest challenge gushing with confidence and poised to reap the rewards from their decision to chase premium seeding.

There’s a swagger to this team that seems to start with Udoka and the way he’s led during his first season on the bench. Combine that with a confidence from emerging as the best team in basketball in calendar year 2022 and Boston is in a position few could have envisioned in early January.

We were all still scoffing in March when the computer models suggested the Celtics had the best odds of representing the East. Now it doesn’t seem so farfetched.

Boston most assuredly has a massive challenge in front of it with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champion Bucks. But nothing has come easy for this team.

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It feels like tempting fate to even utter these words given that Boston’s playoff pursuits have been defined by health (or lack thereof) for more than a decade. But the reality is that Boston is maybe the East’s healthiest remaining team and that could also play a huge role in how this ride ends.

Yes, Jaylen Brown is dealing with hamstring tightness. Al Horford has been sporting a wrap over his left thumb since Game 4 of Boston’s first-round sweep of the Nets. Robert Williams is still shaking rust from left meniscus surgery.

But the Celtics are poised to enter Game 1 of the East semifinals at about as close to full health as you can get at this point of the year. All while the Bucks are braced for the possibility of navigating this entire series without All-Star swing Khris Middleton. Across the bracket, the Philadelphia 76ers are dealing with the indefinite absence of Joel Embiid due to an orbital fracture and concussion. Miami had five players missing from Friday’s practice, including Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry, both of whom sat out the Heat’s series-clinching win over the Hawks.

Nothing is promised during an NBA season, especially not health. The Celtics have been a bear of a team this season when at full strength. And there is an opportunity in front of them.

But, healthy or not, the Bucks are going to challenge Boston in ways that Brooklyn did not. The Celtics must find a way to slow Antetokounmpo, whose two-way dominance is so assumed at this point that we spent the year debating two other worthy MVP candidates and just taking him for granted.

Yet again, the Celtics must run towards the storm. There are not shortcuts on the road to an NBA title. Boston has met all the challenges head on.

And that journey might only make whatever Boston accomplishes from this point on all the more sweeter.

Be sure to check out Celtics Pregame LIVE leading up to Game 1, LIVE on NBC Sports Boston or stream it here starting at 12 p.m ET. 

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