The Boston Celtics passed one daunting test after another. Now the octopus is waiting.
The Celtics won their second Game 7 of the postseason, this time away, with “Jimmy Buckets” freaking out and the pressures of systemic disappointment staring them in the face in the Eastern Conference Finals. They survived another 35 points from Heat star Jimmy Butler, not to mention a near stab in the back from him, and are headed to a league-record 22nd NBA Finals thanks to a 100-96 win in Miami on Sunday night.
“Feels like it was always meant to be, difficult,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka, who is heading towards the finals in his first season in charge.
Jayson Tatum, who led the Celtics by 26 points in Game 7, is the first recipient of the Larry Bird trophy, named for the Celtic legend and created for the newly established Eastern Conference MVP Finals.
“It’s the biggest game of the season, of my career, and I just had faith that we were going to give everything we had, regardless of the outcome,” Tatum said.
The Celtics, never behind in Game 7, were just 98-96 by 16.6 seconds when Butler took a wide-open 3 near the top of the key that missed. Marcus Smart converted two free throws at the other end to seal it.
“I was hoping to God – my mind wanted to rebound from being on the name so I didn’t want to give up an offensive rebound but when he shot that I was like, man, what the hell,” Celtics’ Jaylen Brown said. “But he missed, we get the rebound, we go on.”
Boston, No. 2 in the East who was still No. 11 on Jan. 16, had to beat defending champion Milwaukee and superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 7 just to reach Miami. Then the Celtics built a 3-2 lead in that series, only to watch Butler drop 47 points on his head and force everyone back on planes for one last try in South Beach, and Boston had 48 hours to contemplating whether he might miss out on the conference finals for the fourth time in six years.
There was the six-game loss to that Heat in 2020. The Game 7 loss to LeBron and the Cavaliers in 2018. A gentleman’s sweep against Cleveland the year before. Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown were on all of those teams; Tatum and Al Horford – most. Together they finally reach the final.
Expecting the three-headed beast of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, who have made six finals appearances in eight years, the three-time champion Golden State Warriors will host the Celtics in Game 1 of the NBA Finals at 9 p.m. ET Thursday. The ultimate test.
“I’ve been part of a lot of great teams, a lot of great teammates, and I’m so proud of that group,” said Horford, 35, a 15-year-old vet who fell in court overwhelmed with emotion after the buzzer sounded. “These guys, I saw JB coming up in the league, taking steps, leveling up. I’ve seen JT, same thing. I’ve seen Smart grow.
“It’s just special for me to be with them and to be able to help them and be a part of it. I’m really grateful to be in this position.”
Tatum, who has averaged just 25 points in that series, scored seven goals in the fourth quarter and finished with 10 rebounds. Brown added 24 points for Boston, and Smart, who missed two games in that series with a sprained ankle, contributed 24 points, nine boards and five assists.
The Celtics have officially avenged their losses in the 2012 and 2020 Conference Finals against the Heat. They’re looking for their best 18th NBA title in the league.
With the loss of Miami, the No. 1 in the East has not reached the finals in a season since 2017, when Cleveland made it. Butler was incredible for the Heat and had the game of his life followed by Game 6 with something close. He played all 48 minutes, shooting 13 of 24, being 8 of 11 from the foul line and nabbing nine rebounds.
The 3-point butler, who could have given Miami a late lead, followed up on a missed layup by Smart that was preceded by Max Strus’ 3-ball that cut Boston’s lead to two.
“My thought was that I wanted to bet on winning, which I did,” Butler said of his missed 3. “I’ll take that chance. My teammates liked my shot so I live with that.”
The Heat were nine, 1:28 behind after trailing 15 in the first quarter and 17 in the second. They also had a 3-pointer from Strus in the first half which was wiped off the board via video replay at the league office a few minutes after the shot came in. Replay officials ruled that Strus had overstepped the bounds.
Two stats that will haunt Miami all offseason: free throws and three-pointers. The Heat missed eight fouls in a four-point loss and shot just 6 of 30 from 30-point range, an especially bitter pill considering they led the NBA by 3 points that season.
Bam Adebayo added 25 points and 11 boards in 46, and Kyle Lowry finished the game with 15 points and seven rebounds on 4-of-12 shooting.
Tyler Herro returned to the heat bench after missing the last three games with a strained left groin. He played seven minutes in the second quarter and didn’t score.
“It’s heartbreaking when it ends like this,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “I thought it would have been an incredible story for Jimmy to pull up and meet these three. … It was a shame it didn’t end that way, but I can’t praise Boston enough. They walked through fire and earned the right to get to the final.”
(Photo Eric Espada / Getty Images)