Boston Celtics outlast Miami Heat in Game 7 to cap East’s grueling Finals – “Looks like it was always meant to be this way –

MIAMI — Nothing about this Boston Celtics season has been easy. So, it stands to reason that qualifying for the NBA Finals wouldn’t be either.

But at the end of a grueling seven-game Eastern Conference Finals streak against the Miami Heat, that’s exactly where the Celtics have come back once again.

Behind the stunning performances of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston won its third game at the FTX Arena in this series, escaping with a 100-96 victory Sunday night in front of a sold-out crowd delighted by the exploits of the local team all the way. moments of decline in the game.

“It feels like it was always meant to be like this,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “Hard.”

For the first time in 12 years, the Celtics have qualified for the NBA Finals, where they will face the Golden State Warriors. The series begins Thursday night (9 ET on ABC) at Chase Center in San Francisco in a game that includes 123 games of Golden State’s roster NBA Finals experience, compared to exactly zero for Boston.

To get there, the Celtics managed to avoid what would have been a truly disastrous collapse, going from a 13-point lead with 3 minutes and 35 seconds remaining to a seven-point advantage with just over a minute to go. to have their season in the hands of Jimmy Butler with 17 seconds left as the Heat superstar rose for a 3-point transition pull-up that could have given Miami the lead.

“When he shot that, I was like, ‘Man, what the hell are you doing,'” said Brown, who finished with 24 points in 43 minutes.

“Not yet,” said Celtics guard Marcus Smart, who himself scored 24 points in 40 minutes. “Man, Jimmy played well, so when he stopped, it was kind of like, ‘Oh, man. I just hope he doesn’t make it.'”

Fate, however, turned out to be on Boston’s side. Instead of sending the Heat back in the lead, Butler’s shot ricocheted off the front of the rim. And after Smart landed a pair of free throws, the Celtics could – finally – breathe easy.

“[I] just didn’t know how to act,” said Celtics center Al Horford, who had been the record holder for most playoff games in NBA history without reaching the NBA Finals before Boston won. this game. He contributed five points and 14 rebounds in 44 minutes. . “Just caught up, excited. Lots of hard work. I’ve been on a lot of great teams, a lot of great teammates, and I’m so proud of this group.”

What made Boston’s late-game weaknesses all the more surprising was how confident the Celtics were throughout the game. After missing the chance to end that streak at home Friday night in Game 6, the Celtics were unanimous in their belief that they would come back to Miami and win this one.

And for the first 46 minutes, they kept their word. After spending so much of this series committing unforced errors, Boston was locked in early on Sunday. The Celtics didn’t let the Heat make a basket for the first three minutes, jumping to an early lead that Boston, who was leading wire to wire, never gave up.

“It’s us,” Brown said. “We’ve reacted all year, all season, to adversity. Today was the biggest test, not just of the year but of our career, to mentally step into an away Game 7 after losing on our pitch, which was difficult, and we did it.”

Every time the Celtics pushed the lead, the Heat found a way to bring them back. Much of that was due to Butler’s brilliance, as he had 35 points and played every second of the game.

But the Heat — a spunky, tough team that beat those Celtics two years ago in this same series inside the NBA bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando — showed why they’re atop the East standings. for most of this season and why they earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern playoffs. Miami fought tooth and nail to stay in the game, getting a big game from Bam Adebayo (25 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists) and making life miserable for Boston every second of the game at the other end.

In the end, however, the Celtics won this series as they have won so many games since the turning point of their season after a home loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 21 cut them to 23-24: playing a suffocating defense. And after Miami opened the fourth quarter with two buckets down to 82-79 with 10:58 left on Sunday, forcing Udoka to call a timeout, Boston held Miami scoreless for more than four minutes.

That allowed the Celtics to create enough cushion to ultimately hold off that final heat load.

“Defense is our identity,” Udoka said. “He was there and held us – got us through the tough times when the attack wasn’t clicking, the games where the attack wasn’t clicking at the level it should, we can always rely on that, and that was the case tonight.

“We had big leads, we cut them and we kept stopping when we needed to, especially at the end.”

The Celtics also got big shots in the streak of Tatum, who finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists en route to being named the first Larry Bird Trophy winner as Conference Finals MVP. from the east.

Two shots in particular midway through the fourth quarter — a 3-pointer off the left wing and a midrange elbow jumper — helped keep the Heat at bay as they made another push in the game.

The Celtics surrendered their ticket to the Finals for the first time since losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games in 2010; and in doing so, the Celtics now have a shot at winning the No. 18 banner, which would propel them ahead of their lifelong rivals in the hunt for the most titles in NBA history.

It’s been a roller coaster ride of a season — and, really, past seasons — for the Celtics. This is the third time in five NBA seasons that Tatum has made the Eastern Finals. It’s the fourth time in six campaigns for Brown and the fourth in eight for Smart. This is Horford’s first trip after 16 seasons.

En route to reaching the Finals, the Celtics have eliminated the teams that have beaten them in each of the past three playoffs – the Heat (2020), Milwaukee Bucks (2019) and Brooklyn Nets (2021). Boston did it by winning seven road games, 7 straight games and three playoff games.

As a result, they head to the Bay Area for a date with the Warriors.

“Really,” Tatum said, when asked if he thought those experiences helped the Celtics break through this time around. “The moment you lose those streaks, obviously it hurts and it’s hard. But you never forget that.

“I think that’s what we all have in common: that we all went through those tough times, and we remember how we felt. We didn’t want to have that feeling anymore when we left here tonight. We left everything out on the floor. Obviously, we did.

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