Even in an almost certain victory, the Boston Celtics found a way to make the final minutes of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat perhaps a little too entertaining for comfort.
With just over three and a half minutes left in the game, Boston held a 98-85 lead over what looked like a gassed Miami team desperate for relief. With just a few smart plays on offense and a few saves on defense, the Celtics could start packing their bags in California to face the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
Then Marcus Smart missed five shots, including three three-pointers. And the team returned the ball twice. And in the blink of an eye, Miami had gone on an 11-0 run to cut the lead to 98-96 with less than a minute to go. Any other year and that would be just as the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” theme music would start playing.
But it’s 2022. And when Miami’s Jimmy Butler, who played every minute of the game and finished with 35 points, narrowly missed a three-point transition that would have given Miami its first lead of the night with just a few seconds to play, the ball bounced in the direction of Jaylen Brown.
“I was hoping for God… My mind was rebounding, because I was in the game, so I didn’t want to give up an offensive rebound. But when (Butler) pulled that, I was like, ‘Man, what? are you fucking?,” Brown said. “But he missed, we get the rebound, we move on.”
Brown, who finished with 24 points, tipped the ball to Boston and Miami was forced to foul Marcus Smart, who sank two free throws to end the Celtics’ drought and put the game aside, 100-96. And now, after all that, the Boston Celtics will represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
After the game, there seemed to be a universal timeout among the Celtics, who seemed both in complete control of the flow of play and fully capable of letting one of the clearest shots the team had to make the final for years. their fingers towards others.
Marcus Smart, who also lost 24 points, said one word crossed his mind when the final buzzer sounded: finally.
“You know you can overcome this difficulty and have a chance to qualify for the NBA Finals,” he said. “You know, it’s every athlete’s dream to reach that final stage and have an opportunity. And, you know, I’ve been here four years in the Eastern Conference Finals and, you know , I got sent home every year after. So that feels really good. And it feels really good to Jayson [Tatum] and Jaylen, you know, we’ve been together a really long time. And even Al [Horford], man. Al, just happy for him. You know, he’s played all those games and he works hard, he deserves it more than any of us. So it was a great feeling.”
Horford, who scored just 5 points but grabbed 14 rebounds, noted how resilient the team had been over the year.
“It took us a while, but I feel like once we started to understand how we needed to play, we became more consistent,” he said. “You know, this journey, it’s not easy. We’ve had a rough road. Brooklyn, Milwaukee, the defending champions, and Miami are a team, look what they’ve done. brought us to the brink. So for our group, it’s resilience. It’s changing the page, moving on to the next thing. And we’ve been doing that all season.”
The sometimes rocky storm of a season for the Celtics was navigated by first-year head coach Ime Udoka, who was saving all major celebrations for later after Sunday night’s big win.
“It would be for nothing if we went to lay an egg in the final and we understand that,” he said. “The guys were quick to celebrate, but quickly turned the page and said, ‘We have four more. “We don’t celebrate Eastern Conference championships in the Celtics organization, so we all conform and appreciate that level of excellence. So playing for championships, we’re here now, let’s try to wrap it up. the case.”
The one person who could be most responsible for finishing the season for Boston is Jayson Tatum, who received the first-ever Eastern Conference Finals MVP award from Larry Bird and had 26 points and snatched 10 rebounds in one of the greatest moments of his career.
Now he has his sights set on a bigger prize than the Conference title. But he still took the time to enjoy the moment that had eluded him and his team for what seemed so long.
“That wasn’t the goal for the whole season, was it? It was just a step to get where we want to go,” he said. “Obviously it’s a big achievement. You know, we haven’t been in the championship yet. And I think it’s good to be proud of us today and to enjoy it. And we are not satisfied, we know we still have a long way to go. But I think it’s good to enjoy it tonight and be happy. Because it’s hard, it’s not easy, clearly. It’s the first time I’ve won a championship, it’s not easy. And we know we have a tough job to do, (Golden State has) been there many times, they’ve won many times So, I can’t wait to be there.