ORLANDO, Fla. — With the season at stake, the perception of the franchise in the balance, and an opportunity to reach the NBA’s final four in what has become a captivating environment, the Celtics excelled at the little things. They outworked, outhustled, and outlasted a team that seemed like it would never go away.
The Celtics extinguished, finally, the Monsters (Raptors) from the North. They won with the little things. A chasedown block from Marcus Smart. A tough offensive rebound from rookie Grant Williams, and finally a gritty, rugged offensive rebound in the final minute by All-Star Jayson Tatum.
The Celtics won 92-87 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. They ground out a game that was never going to be pretty. It would have been too easy for this team to hit early shots, build a big lead, and then coast. Just like the series, the Celtics controlled most of the game, and then watched as the relentless Raptors kept charging and charging.
The Celtics didn’t score a field goal for the final 5:21. They scored only 5 more points, but bested the Raptors with defense and those grimy plays that win big games. Boston learned a lesson from this series. They learned that the Raptors weren’t defending champions because they were more talented than their opponents. They were successful because they were relentless.
The Celtics had to be more relentless. In a couple of games in this roller-coaster series, they stopped one play short of relentless.
There was genuine glee and excitement afterward. Unlike last year’s team which imploded against the Milwaukee Bucks, their dislike for each other seeping out of their pores, this bunch rooted for each other. Tatum and Jaylen Brown have grown close in their three years together, knowing their importance to each other in helping the Celtics become an elite franchise.
Brown fought through a groin strain suffered in the fourth quarter, when he was pushed in the back by Pascal Siakam on a breakaway dunk. Brown laid on the floor for several moments. His teammates surrounded him. Would the Celtics quest for the conference finals be squelched by an untimely injury?
Brown rose and walked to the bench. He remained in the game and pestered Siakam on defense.
“It feels a lot better when you win,” said Brown, who appeared as happy as he has been in the bubble. "It definitely wasn’t pretty. But all the stuff that we went through, the fight, the intangibles, all of that stuff is what came into play, and we’ve got a lot of fight about ourselves. We couldn’t score toward the end of the game. Grant made a big offensive rebound and JT came in and made another rebound right behind that.
“When you got superstar-level players making plays like that. You’re bound to have some good success.”
The teams combined for 11-for-31 shooting and 2-for-11 on 3-pointers in the final period. It was indeed a rock fight. The Celtics led, 88-78, with 4:51 left and needed perhaps another bucket or two to seal the game — the theme of this series — but the Raptors stormed back with a 9-1 run and looked to tie the game when Powell soared toward the basket.
Smart raced behind Powell and smacked the ball off the backboard. Brown retrieved the ball; the Raptors wouldn’t score again. The Celtics provided one last, brilliant sequence of defense, forcing Fred VanVleet to launch a rainbow 3-pointer that appeared to be partially blocked by Williams.
Kemba Walker, who looked more like himself in the second half with 10 points, sunk the clinching free throws. It was apropos considering Walker, who struggled most of the series, had never been to a conference final.
After the game, Walker shared a tight embrace with teammate Daniel Theis. Emotions got the better of him.
“These guys saved me all night,” Walker said. “I really appreciated that. I knew how great those guys [Tatum, Brown, and Smart] are. I knew how hard they worked. I knew they were rising superstars. I’ve had so much fun with all these guys. Jayson, he led us. He’s a superstar. Those guys, they love the game of basketball. They love to compete. I love to be a part of it.”
This almost seemed a necessary experience for this franchise. The Celtics beat a worthy opponent, one that pushed them to be better. To concentrate more on the little things and ditch the 3-point barrages of the past. The Celtics are a more polished, experienced, and grittier team than they were two weeks ago.
This series brought out the best in the players and coach Brad Stevens, who was quietly confident that his team would respond favorably after the Game 6, double-overtime loss. The Celtics had every excuse to lose this series. They were playing the defending champions. They were stymied by the officiating. They are here in the bubble without their families and are eager to get home.
But not so soon. The Celtics have reached the final four, and Stevens offered a hint of good news when he said Gordon Hayward would be available at some point in this series. Help could be on the way.
As for now, the Celtics should be proud of their accomplishment. They were the tougher team. They wanted to win more. They showed it down the stretch, and it had nothing to do with a pretty stepback Tatum jumper or a thunderous Brown dunk.
It looked so pretty for the Celtics to win ugly.
“We pride ourselves on playing hard and competing, and Toronto is the same,” Tatum said. “So neither one of us was going to back down. It was, who wanted it more? Who could make a bigger play? Just finding a way to impact the game. It feels good.”