Celtics vs. Bucks: Boston faces defining moment of Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown era after Game 5 collapse

Celtics vs. Bucks: Boston faces defining moment of Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown era after Game 5 collapse

The Boston Celtics could see the finish line. A 3-2 lead was right there if they could just keep their sanity and stay on their feet. And then you stumble. Then another, and another, and suddenly, improbably, the Milwaukee Bucks pinched her ribbon to take control of the East semifinal series.

“We gave it away,” said Jaylen Brown. “That’s how we lost it.”

Now the action shifts back to Milwaukee for Game 6 and one of the defining moments of the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown era.

The duo, who have been together since Tatum’s arrival in the 2017 draft, have already hit a string of deep playoff runs together. There was the surprise trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in Tatum’s 2018 rookie season, where they ultimately lost Game 7 at home to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They came back to the ECF in the bubble in 2020 but were not entirely healthy and unable to do business in an unfamiliar environment against the Miami Heat.

Those two defeats were frustrating, but they felt like positive stepping stones for a then-young team. The reins hadn’t fully handed over to Tatum and Brown, and no season would the Celtics likely win the title if they broke through to the Finals — certainly not in 2018 against the Golden State Warriors at the peak of their powers, and probably not against the LeBron-Anthony Davis-led Lakers in 2020.

None of these restrictions apply this time. This really is Tatum and Brown’s team and it would be a huge disappointment if they were eliminated in the second round, even ahead of the defending champion. The title race is wide open this season and there is a real chance for them to win it all. Tatum has established themselves as one of the best players in the league, Brown is an all-star, they get some of the best basketball of Al Horford’s career, and they have an elite defense that was dominant at times in the playoffs.

The Celtics were favored in the series and appeared to be the better team with Khris Middleton out. For large parts of the series they were. They’ve led in four of their five games in the last minute and, despite being down 3-2, beat the Bucks 522-508. They really could and should travel to Milwaukee to wrap things up and return to the Conference Finals for the fourth time in six seasons. Instead, they suffer one of the most heartbreaking losses in recent franchise history and are eliminated along the way.

All this makes Game 6 fascinating.

How are Tatum, Brown and the Celtics reacting? As Tatum was quick to remind everyone during his post-game press conference, “The streak isn’t over.” The Celtics have won once before in Milwaukee and are more than capable of it. But this group has never faced such a test and has never had to recover from such a defeat.

“The biggest challenge of the year,” Brown said. “Mentally, physically and emotionally, it’s a challenge for every component. So we need to regroup and bring our spirit to the point where we can achieve victory in Milwaukee.”

Will they be able to muster the determination, focus and mental toughness needed to force a Game 7? Or will another opportunity pass? Questions like these are what the playoffs are all about, and now it’s Tatum and Brown’s turn to provide an answer.

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