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Larry Bird was never the most athletic player on the basketball court. He had basketball skills, but his mental game separated him from the rest of the pack. Sure, the Boston Celtics forward could shoot and pass with the best of them, but mentally, he was always one step ahead.

One year after getting swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 1983, Bird and the Celtics returned the favor in ’84. The Celtics knocked off the Bucks in five games to reach the 1984 NBA Finals. After the series-clinching Game 5, Bird explained his mentality heading into that ’84 series with the Bucks. It’s the same approach Jayson Tatum and the Celtics need against the Brooklyn Nets.

Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics were embarrassed by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1983

Boston Celtics player Larry Bird talks to the media on press day on Sept. 29, 1983. | David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

The Celtics slipped past the Atlanta Hawks in best-of-three, opening-round playoff series in 1983 and squared off against the Bucks in the conference semifinals. Boston was seeded second and Milwaukee third. The Bucks came into Boston and made a statement in Game 1, winning 116-95.

They followed that up with a 95-91 victory in Game 2 to take a commanding 2-0 series lead heading back to Milwaukee. Bird missed the game with a fever.

Bird returned in Game 3, scoring 21 points and pulling down 14 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough as the Bucks claimed a 107-99 victory. Milwaukee closed out the shocking sweep with a 107-93 win in Game 4.

“This is very embarrassing,” said Bird, after the elimination game, per United Press International. “I felt we had a great opportunity to win, no matter how many games we were down. But we just weren’t as good as we thought we were.”

It was the first time the Celtics had failed to win a game in a playoff series since 1951.

Larry Bird had a mentality in 1984 that Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics need against the Nets

The following year, Bird’s Celtics met up with the Bucks again in the postseason, this time in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was a whole different story.

The Celtics took charge in the first three games, winning easily and taking a 3-0 lead. They closed out the series in five games.

After the game, Bird said it wasn’t revenge the Celtics looked for.

“It’s always good to win a series,’ said Bird, per UPI. “There really was no revenge factor. The Celtics don’t come to split. They come to win.”

That’s the mentality Tatum and the Celtics need when they host the Nets in the first round of the playoffs, beginning Sunday. The Nets knocked out the Celtics in the opening round a year ago. Former Celtics guard Kyrie Irving stomped on Boston’s logo after earning a Game 4 victory. There was drama. The Celtics need to look past that.

Revenge shouldn’t matter. The Celtics need to put the noise aside and just come to win. They’ve been the hottest team in the Eastern Conference for nearly three months. There should be no looking back at last year. There should be no revenge factor. The Celtics simply need to continue playing great defense and keep playing their game.

Tatum needs to show he can lead the Celtics to the NBA Finals

Tatum has come close, but he’s never reached the NBA Finals. In his rookie year, the Celtics lost to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Boston. In 2020, the Celtics lost to the Miami Heat in the bubble.

Last year, the Celtic took a step back, finishing the season at 36-36 before bowing to the Nets in the first round. This year, Boston stood at 25-25 through 50 games before catching fire.

The Celtics have since taken a step in the right direction, finishing the regular season on a 26-6 run. Are they the team they were for the first 50 games or the one from the final 32?

Tatum is considered a superstar, the next big Celtics great. In order for him to continue in that direction, he needs to prove he can be the leader of a championship team.

That begins Sunday.


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