MIAMI — More than four months after a remarkable turnaround, the Celtics seem determined to keep it going. Behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the team’s two young stars, Boston is heading to the NBA Finals after beating the Miami Heat, 100-96, in a decisive Game 7 Sunday in the Eastern Conference Finals .
Boston won the series, 4-3, and will face Golden State in the NBA Finals, starting Thursday in San Francisco. 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.
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 Butler. He scored 18 points in the second quarter and helped the Heat cut the lead to just 6 at halftime. But the Heat’s comeback attempt wasn’t enough.
Under Ime Udoka, their first-year coach, the Celtics have already crafted their own comeback story to remember. 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, which has withered under pressure from the Celtics.
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 plumb their depths early in November when a loss to the Chicago Bulls dropped their record to 2-5 and point guard Marcus Smart used his post-game platform to tear Tatum and Brown for grabbed the ball.
By mid-January, a loss to Philadelphia had taken them 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.
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.
“You can literally see the improvement in ball movement,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said at the time. “Old Boston is more isolated. This Boston drives and plays with each other, and that’s what makes them so much tougher.
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. But with their season on the line in Game 6, the Heat responded. Jimmy Butler scored 47 points on the road in Boston, forcing a Game 7 winner in Miami.
Heading into that critical game, the Celtics delivered a game-winning performance worthy of the cheers of their fans who, not so long ago, had seen them at their worst. Now, perhaps the best is yet to come.