BOSTON — The Boston Celtics are heading to the NBA Finals. The Celtics move on after beating the Heat, 100-96, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday night in Miami.
The Celtics will now face the Golden State Warriors for an NBA title. Game 1 is scheduled for Thursday night in San Francisco.
As the Celtics clinched their series victory on Sunday, head coach Ime Udoka was quick to say they still had a lot of work to do in the playoffs.
“We don’t celebrate the Eastern Conference championship in this organization. We don’t hang those banners,” Udoka told WBZ-TV’s Dan Roche in Miami. “We are here for bigger and better things.”
Still, a conference title is quite an achievement for a team that was 18-21 on Jan. 6. The Celtics got it right and became one of the best teams in the NBA in the second half of the regular season, and they’re now four wins away from claiming the franchise’s 18th banner.
“We know we want to win a championship,” Jayson Tatum said after Sunday’s victory. “But to get over that hump, and the way we did it, we took the hardest path possible. Winning a Game 7 to go to the championship on the road is special.”
As for Sunday night, Game 7 was much closer than the Celtics would have liked, especially late in the game. They nearly let him slip away as they processed the clock late in the fourth quarter.
“We’re doing all of this on purpose to make it interesting. Just kidding, but that’s us,” Jaylen Brown joked after the win. “We’ve responded all year, all season to adversity. Today was the biggest test, not just of the year but of our careers. To mentally go into Game 7 away, after losing on our turf, we did it.”
Brown, Tatum and company are now heading to their first NBA Finals. Tatum led the way for Boston with 26 points while Brown had 24. Marcus Smart also had 24, and although he missed a ton of shots late in the game, he hit two free throws with 11, 4 seconds to play to seal the victory for the Celtics.
“All the things we did at the start of the season allowed us to come here in Game 7 and do what we did,” Smart said after the win. “Our record on the road is better than our record at home and that just shows the resilience we have. This group of guys, the coaching staff, the whole organization, they trusted us and made us understand They trusted us and that made us stronger in the long run.”
Jimmy Butler led all scorers with 35 points in Game 7 but missed a potential go-ahead three in the final seconds for Miami.
Boston’s defense was solid all night, but really felt early in the game. Al Horford dismissed Max Strus at the rim, and that block turned into a few easy transition points for Grant Williams to put the Celtics on top 22-9.
Boston got 11 of its first 22 points on the fast break.
The Heat woke up shortly after that Boston hoop and went on an 8-0 run. Tatum missed a 3-on-1 opportunity, which turned into an easy bucket for Butler, and Gabe Vincent knocked down a three as he was fouled by Horford. After Vincent hit his free throw, Miami turned a miss from Brown into another layup from Butler to cut it to 24-17.
The Celtics responded, with Derrick White and Tatum knocking down three and Brown hitting a floater, as Boston closed out the quarter on an 8-0 run. The Celtics had 13 quick break points in the quarter to tie their season high. It was close to a perfect start for Boston, and the Celtics led 32-17 after the first 12 minutes.
The Celtics continued to send Butler down the line early in the second quarter and the Heat cut the lead to single digits when Bam Adebayo missed his own game to make it 41-32. But Tatum made a good driving layup and Smart hit a 9ft float on a great feed from Tatum (who faked a three at the top of the key) to push the lead to 13 and force a timeout. at Miami. The Celtics led by no less than 17 in the second quarter.
But Boston’s offense became stale late and the defense let Butler into an open three after a miss from Tatum to make it 53-44 with 1:26 in the half. The Celtics missed four of their last five shots in the quarter as the Heat started to hit their free throws, and Miami closed the half on an 11-2 run to cut Boston’s lead to just six. , 55-49.
After Miami cut it to a two-run game (at least then) early in the third, the Celtics went on a 7-0 run. Smart capped it off by draining a tough line to finish off an ugly and shaky Celtics possession to give them a 63-54 advantage. They even took a break as a Strus three from early in the quarter was retroactively taken off the board after it was determined to have gone out of bounds before hitting the shot.
Smart drained three more on a fine pass from Brown, who drew four Miami defenders with a drive to the hoop, to give the Celtics a 72-58 lead with 6:46 left in the frame.
But the heat just wouldn’t go away. They scored the next seven points, capped by a Victor Oladipo three after Tatum missed a comeback, to cut Boston’s lead to seven, 72-65. The Celtics outscored the Heat 27-26 in the quarter, but their seven-point lead going into the fourth didn’t feel secure the way Miami played in the third.
A Butler layup after a Rob Williams turnover made it a one-possession game, 82-79, early in the fourth quarter. But Tatum made a pair of free throws, then made a magnificent thread to Grant Williams for an easy lay-up for his sixth assist of the night, to rebuild Boston’s lead at seven, 86-79.
The Celtics defense locked down and forced Miami to miss nine straight shots, and Boston went on an 8-0 run. The Celtics went up 90-79 when Smart put a float with 6:36 on the clock. Tatum hit a tough fade from an inbound on the shot clock to put Boston back on top by 10, 95-85, with 4:28 remaining.
Miami made it really interesting in the final minutes. Kyle Lowry made a driving layup with just over a minute to play, part of an 8-0 Heat run, to make it a 98-93 game.
Brown was then called for an offensive foul on a drive to Adebayo, and Boston’s challenge fell through. Miami had the ball under five with 52.4 seconds left, and Strus hit a three to make it 98-96 with 44.4 seconds left.
Smart missed the other end, but Butler missed a potential go-ahead three with 16.6 seconds left.
Al Horford had the rebound and Smart had two free throws with 11.4 seconds left to seal the victory for Boston. This will be Horford’s first trip to the NBA Finals in his 15-year career.
“It’s been a lot of hard work,” Horford said. “I’ve been on a lot of great teams with a lot of great teammates. It’s a great group; I’ve seen JB and Tatum take action, seen Smart grow. For me, it’s special to be with them and helping them be a part of that. I’m grateful to be in that position.
The Celtics won three games in Miami during the series to earn their first trip to the NBA Finals since 2010. Tatum was named the series’ MVP, which is now named the Larry Bird Eastern Conference Finals MVP trophy.