MIAMI — For the Boston Celtics, winning the Eastern Conference Finals is nothing new. Reaching the NBA Finals, which the franchise has already played 22 times, is nothing to cheer about. The Celtics don’t hang those banners, they like to say. There is no place among the 17 in the rafters to win NBA championships.
But that was new for the players who made this Eastern Conference championship happen.
Two stars in their twenties, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, have each reached the conference finals multiple times, but no further than Sunday. The Celtics beat the Miami Heat, 100-96, in Game 7 to win the East and will face Golden State in the NBA Finals starting Thursday in San Francisco. A 15-year NBA veteran at Al Horford will make his first Finals appearance, with Boston. Marcus Smart, a 28-year-old defensive mainstay, is in his eighth season with the Celtics. They were bouncing, thumping their chests, hugging and screaming.
“Obviously we know we want to win a championship, don’t we,” Tatum said, “but to get over that bump the way we did, obviously we took the hardest route. as difficult as possible. And then winning a Game 7 to go to a championship on the road, it’s special.
More than four months after a remarkable turnaround, the Celtics seem determined to carry on. Behind Tatum and Brown, Boston beat the Heat on Sunday for a 4-3 series win. Tatum was named the Most Valuable Player in the Eastern Conference Finals, a new honor this season. The trophy is named after Celtics icon Larry Bird.
The Warriors, trying to resurrect a dynasty on hiatus, are chasing their fourth championship in eight seasons. Golden State, the third seed in the Western Conference, will have the home court advantage over Boston, a second seed, as they had a better regular season record, winning 53 games to Boston’s 51.
The Celtics last won their title in 2008, when many of the top players on that year’s roster were elementary school students.
Under Ime Udoka, their freshman coach, the Celtics have already crafted a memorable comeback story. It wasn’t until late January that they figured out how to defend, share the ball and win with some semblance of consistency.
In the playoffs, the Celtics eliminated an assortment of NBA luminaries and potential contenders: the Nets, led by Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, in the first round; the defending champions, the Milwaukee Bucks, in the conference semi-finals; and, now, the top-seeded Heat, who in Game 7 couldn’t match the desperation with which they played Game 6 when they were first knocked out.
All this after the Celtics filled the first two months of the regular season with some of the least appetizing basketball games on the East Coast. Forget the fight for a championship: Could they even make the playoffs? They appeared in a rigorous pursuit of the bottom.
The Celtics began to probe the depths early in November when a loss to the Chicago Bulls dropped their record to 2-5 and Smart used his platform after the game to rip Tatum and Brown for hoarding the ball.
“We were tested,” Brown said Sunday night. “We have been through a lot. We’ve learned a lot over the years, and now the scene is at its best. We must apply everything we have learned in these times.
In mid-January, a loss to Philadelphia put the Celtics at 21-22, and 76ers star center Joel Embiid described Boston as an easy-to-defend “iso-heavy team.”
Even some of Udoka’s oldest friends wondered if he could unleash the team’s potential. Kendrick Williams, a youth coach who helped Udoka start an Amateur Athletic Union team in 2006 when Udoka was still patrolling NBA courts as a power forward, recalled the contacted by text message when the Celtics were in trouble.
“And he was like, ‘Man, you know I’m not freaking out. You know we’re going to get it right,'” Williams said. “He was so confident, it made me feel comfortable.”
From the start of training camp – and even during his introductory press conference last summer – Udoka emphasized the importance of ball movement. It remained a staple of his movie sessions as the Celtics worked through growing pains, and it was a message that eventually took hold.
“You start to realize how hard it is to win,” Tatum said. “You start asking yourself questions: are you good enough to be that guy? But I think you just have faith in yourself, faith in the work that you’re doing to get to that point and keep working, and it can’t rain forever. The fine days were coming.
Before the Celtics face the 76ers again in mid-February, Udoka reminded his players of Embiid’s remarks. The Celtics came out and beat Philadelphia by 48 points for their ninth straight win.
But that was only part of the Celtics’ winning formula. Led by Smart, who won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, the Celtics have evolved into a fierce group of defensemen, their roster bolstered by a pair of midseason acquisitions: Derrick White, a San Antonio Spurs, and Daniel Theis, a Houston Rockets defensive center who started his career in Boston.
After winning 28 of their final 35 games to close out the regular season, the Celtics pulverized the Nets with a four-game sweep in the first round of the playoffs. Even before the series ended, Irving was telling reporters the Celtics’ window was “now.” With the sweep complete, Durant predicted Boston had a chance “to do great things.”
Boston and Miami traded wins in the first four games of the Conference Finals, then the Celtics became the first to string together two wins. Miami shot 33.3% in Game 4, then 31.9% in Game 5 – two lopsided losses.
At that point, at least one Golden State player thought he knew how the Eastern Conference Finals would end. After Golden State beat Dallas in the Western Conference final on Thursday, forward Draymond Green said during an appearance on TNT’s postgame show that he expected to face the Celtics in the final. of the NBA.
Instead, the Heat, and Butler in particular, refused to concede.
With their season on the line in Game 6, Butler scored 47 points on the road in Boston, forcing a Game 7 in Miami.
Boston opened Game 7 on a 9-1 run, and Miami spent the rest of the game trying to catch up.
After one quarter, the Celtics led by 15 points and had held Miami to 17 points, including 6 by Butler. When the Heat pushed back, it was largely because of him. He scored 18 points in the second quarter and helped the Heat reduce their deficit to just 6 at halftime.
They got even closer early in the fourth, when two quick Heat baskets made it 82-79. But then the Boston defense forced Miami to go almost five minutes of playing time without scoring.
Butler played every second of the deciding game and gave the Heat one last chance. With 16.6 seconds remaining in the game and Boston up 2, Butler stopped for a 3-pointer. Having been victims of Butler’s heroism in the past, the Celtics held their breath.
“I was like, ‘Man, what the hell are you doing,'” Brown said.
“Not yet,” Smart said, he thought at that moment.
Butler’s shot didn’t go down. He finished the game with 35 points.
If the Heat had won, it would have been the second time in three years since Butler came to Miami that the Heat had reached the NBA Finals. Butler said after the game that he didn’t know he had played all 48 minutes.
“I feel like every second I played I should have done more, I could have done better to turn that into a win,” he said.
Celtics players and coaches raced towards each other as the final bell rang, then swirled through midfield in jubilation.
Horford fell to his knees and hit the ground with his hands.
“I didn’t know how to act,” he said later, then turned to Brown, 10 years his junior, and laughed.
Celtics fans who remained in the crowd headed to the lower bowl for the muted conference championship celebration that always comes when a team wins it on the road. Chants of “Let’s go Celtics” rang out in the emptying arena, sometimes with players on the pitch acting as conductors leading the chorus.
Tatum cradled his Larry Bird trophy and lifted it into the air as he headed for the tunnel off the field as fans tried to tag him.
“You can’t help but smile and enjoy the moment on the pitch,” Udoka said. “It’s a bit imposed to see the joy with the players. And it’s all about these guys.
He had already begun to think about what awaited them in San Francisco.