After falling in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals at home, the Boston Celtics knew they would have to come up big if they wanted to defeat the Miami Heat in Game 7 Sunday night.
Boston never trailed in Game 7 as Jayson Tatum had 26 points and 10 rebounds; Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown added 24 points apiece as the Celtics advanced to the NBA Finals to face the Golden State Warriors after defeating the Heat 100-96 at FTX Arena.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals is Thursday night at Chase Center.
With the win, Boston returns to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
“It’s the biggest game of the season, of my career, and I just had faith that we were going to give it all we had, regardless of the outcome,” Tatum, who was named Eastern Conference finals MVP, said after the win. “But it feels great, honestly. Some of those guys been to the Eastern Conference Finals four times; it’s my third time. Obviously, we know we want to win a championship, right, but to get over this hump in the fashion that we did it, obviously, we took the toughest route possible, and then to win a Game 7 to go to a championship on the road is special.”
Boston had its largest lead of 17 points in the second quarter and led 98-85 with 3:35 left in the fourth. However, Miami went on a furious 11-0 run to cut the lead to 98-96 with just under 20 second to go with the ball in the hands of their best player, Jimmy Butler, who scored a game-high 35 points and had Al Horford on his heels.
However, Butler pulled up for three, which was short, and Smart hit two free throws to seal the game. Butler appeared to have had the advantage and probably could have gotten a layup or fouled, but he went for the win, which he was comfortable with after the game.
“My thought process was go for the win, which I did,” he said. “Missed a shot. But I’m taking that shot. My teammates liked the shot that I took. So I’m living with it.”
According Horford, who will be making his first NBA Finals appearance after 141 career playoff games, the most in league history, Butler’s shot was nerve-racking.
“Yeah, I was loaded,” he said. “I didn’t know what he was going to do. It seemed like he was going to go for the shot, but I had to make sure that I stayed solid and when he pulled up for the three, I was like, let me contest the best way that I can. He got a good look at it, and it was nerve-racking. It was nerve-racking. He pulled up, and anything could have happened there. He could have made the shot and fortunately contested it enough, and he missed it, and we were able to get control of the ball.”
Boston’s Brown had this reaction to Butler’s shot: “I didn’t want to give up an offensive rebound, but when he shot that, I was like, man, what the hell. But he missed, we get the rebound, we move on.”
The Celtics made a lot of changes last offseason. Their former head coach Brad Stevens replaced Danny Ainge in the front office, and they hired Ime Udoka as head coach.
It wasn’t all pretty for Boston as they got off to a slow start this season, and at one point were 18-21 on January 6, but through it all, they battled, fought, and now they’re in the NBA Finals.
For Udoka, who became the first rookie head coach to win multiple Game 7s in NBA history, this win epitomized Boston’s season.
“It’s been a long road obviously throughout the season,” Udoka said. “Feels like it was always meant to be this way, difficult, obviously, two Game 7s in the last two series, and shows what I said about our group, that we fought through a lot of adversity this year, a resilient group, and tonight seemed to kind of typify our season.”
The Celtics split the season series with the Warriors, but that means nothing. Both teams are playing well, and both teams have found ways to get the job done. The Warriors have the experience as no player on Boston’s roster has played in an NBA Finals’ game, but Boston has defied the odds all season long, and we’ll see if that continues in the Finals.