BOSTON— This is game 7, where reputations are made and reputations are broken. Where you make your name, which is more significant than your fame. Where exploits are glorified and mistakes magnified. Where you step forward or step aside. Where heroes demand the ball and others flee the spotlight.
Sunday marks that moment for the Celtics and Bucks, those teams that have carried us through six compelling basketball games. It raised the drama and made us wonder if the Eastern Conference Finals — heck, the NBA Finals — could possibly be this entertaining.
“You’ve got two behemoths getting into it,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said.
Want to know how close this conference semi-final is? Nobody has won two games in a row. And forget the series for a moment, how did Boston gain home-court advantage? Oh yeah: The Bucks rested players in their final regular-season game, which helped them avoid the Nets in the first round. But in the process, the Bucks tied a record with Boston, costing them a chance to host Game 7 in the second tiebreaker. And here we are.
“Let’s do it,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “It’s exciting.”
The winner, or rather the survivor, on Sunday can move on, while the loser will certainly wonder where it all went wrong. There’s a lot at stake: The Bucks could lose their defending champion status, the Celtics could lose all the momentum they’ve built since January, when they started winning more than any other team.
“The two best words in basketball are ‘Game 7,'” Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said.
So: which players will most factor into this win-win? And in what order? Based on how they’ve played this series, here’s a look at the top 10 who are most likely to have a moment and help the cause, starting with the most obvious:
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
What else should he do? Giannis has three games of 40 points and 10 rebounds in this series alone. He is, by far, the most impactful Buck and the centerpiece of it all. He is also the most instrumental player in this series; this game will largely be decided on its performance. A 50-piece is a very real possibility, and the Bucks could need one too, just like they did in last summer’s NBA Finals closing game. For the Celtics, the trick is to get out front whenever Giannis charges to the rim, either making offensive fouls or distracting him just enough that he misses.
2. Jayson Tatum
This series is stamped and cemented as Tatum’s Superstar Turn; this game could very well put him in the penthouse of today’s greatest players. Also, Tatum could be part of Celtic Lore if he delivers something like he did in Game 6 (46 points) and the Celtics lead. Celtic lore is rich in Game 7 heroes; no need to list them because after 75 years and 16 championships you know who they are. Tatum seems determined not to let anything or anyone stop him from advancing to the next round in style.
3. Al Horford
We’ll all get what Horford has been drinking in recent weeks as the 35-year-old has come from the bottomless pit (76ers, OKC) to rejuvenate not just his career, but the Celtics in this series. Remember, he delivered a new playoff career high in this series, had a monster dunk on Giannis in this series, and locked him down defensively like never before… in this series. Did anyone see that coming from Big Al? No hands? I thought so.
4. Jaylen Brown
Aside from his absent Game 1 (4 FG, 7 TO), Brown has been a strong complement to Tatum and even – for brief periods – the best player. He’s shooting 44.2 percent from deep, averaging 7.2 rebounds and looking for moments to hurt Milwaukee. If the ball comes back to him late in Game 7, no one in Boston will hold their breath. And Tatum won’t hesitate to seek him out if the double team arrives; a clear sign of the respect he has for Brown. “I expect to be part of a great game,” Brown said of Sunday.
5. Jrue Holiday
It might surprise you to know that Holiday has struggled with shooting this series, shooting just 35.3% overall, which is magnified due to the absence of sharp shooting guard Khris Middleton. But that imperfection gets lost because of the game-changing plays Holiday makes on both ends. For this game, he will have to be more precise, given the offensive demands of Giannis, and also try to slow down Tatum. In that sense, he might have the toughest job of anyone in this game.
6. Smart Marcus
Yes, he had a bad two-minute streak at the end of Game 5 that haunted him for a few days, and sometimes he tries to push his limits offensively, but don’t get me wrong: Smart is a reliable two-way player when it matters most. He’s not afraid of the moment, which is exactly the type of player you want in a Game 7. And he’ll be needed as a layer of defense against Giannis while keeping an eye on Holiday. He bounced back from his Game 5 slump, racking up 21 points, five rebounds, seven assists and – perhaps most importantly – 0 turnovers, proof of his determination and grit. “I am the heart and soul of this team, and I try to be that for them,” he said.
This is where it gets uncertain for the Celtics. Williams played superbly in the early games and then fell dramatically. The Celtics don’t care much if he doesn’t hit the mark (he has two points in the last two games after averaging 11.8 in the first four), but Williams must avoid making cheap fouls every times Giannis loads the rim. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Still, Williams’ defensive presence looms large in this result.
8. Bobby Portis
Budenholzer had two puzzles as a coach: why did he keep George Hill down for 19 minutes (instead of Jevon Carter) in Game 6, and why did he not allow Was it only 15 minutes in the Game 4 loss? Aside from Giannis, Portis is the Bucks’ most energetic big man, a frantic rebounder who proved that with a crucial outing in Game 5. Milwaukee will need him to mix things up, like he did then. (15 rebounds) and concentrate his attack. near the edge, instead of the 3-point line.
9. Pat Connaughton
Grayson Allen was horrible, missing shots, passing others and doing more harm than good. This only increases Connaughton’s importance to be the designated supporting goalscorer, the one whose success can keep Allen on the bench. Connaughton is a good floor spacer and decent around the basket (he’s a former AT&T Slam Dunk competitor). He had some big moments for the Bucks last summer in the NBA Finals, proof that he’s not scared, but has been average in this series. This is where Middleton’s absence hits hard.
10. Derrick White
He’s averaging 32.1 minutes in the last three games — proof that Boston will put him on the floor, especially in critical times — after seeing just 21.8 in the first three games. White has been a mixed bag since arriving mid-season; his shooting from depth to start was mediocre (21.6% in his first 17 games in Boston, then 48.6% in the last nine of the regular season) but he is active, does not hide and seeks to move the things.
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Shaun Powell covered the NBA for over 25 years. You can email him here, find his archive here, and follow him on Twitter.
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