Remember all the parades between 2002 and 2019 . . . back in the good old days before COVID-19?
The Celtics earned a ticket to the 2022 NBA Finals with a thrilling, smashmouth, 100-96, Game 7 victory over the top-seeded Heat Sunday night at FTX Arena in Miami. Boston led the entire game and staved off a furious late-game comeback by Jimmy Butler and the Heat.
This means that after three, predominantly pandemic-plagued years, confetti could rain on Boylston Street next month for the first time since Tom Brady beat the Rams to win a Super Bowl in February 2019.
Playing in the image of franchise forefathers Bill Russell, KC Jones and Dennis Johnson, the Celtics were the best defensive team in the NBA this year and now-ready-for-primetime stars Jayson Tatum (26 points), Jaylen Brown (24), and Marcus Smart (24) are finally going to the Finals.
Cedric Maxwell was on stage to present the Bob Cousy trophy (Eastern Conference champs) trophy to de facto team captain Al Horford and the Larry Bird hardware (Eastern Conference finals MVP) to Tatum.
This new generation of Celtic stars has a chance to extend our local sports High Renaissance (12 championships in the new millennium), which started with 24-year-old Brady upsetting the St. Louis Rams in New Orleans in February 2002.
It wasn’t easy. Playing their 100th game of the season, the Celtics led by 17 early in the second quarter and led by 13 with 3:25 left before an 11-0 Miami late-game run.
How close did the Celts come to losing? Really close. With 18 seconds left and his team trailing by two, the indominable Butler (35 points in the full 48 minutes) rebounded a Smart miss, raced down the court and elected to take a pullup three over the outstretched arm of Horford. It would have given the Heat their first lead of the night.
It clanged off the front rim.
“When he shot that, I was like, ‘Oh, man, what the hell?” Brown said. " . . . Sometimes we like doing it the hard way . . . We’ve been responding all year to adversity. Today was the biggest test. We got it done.”
“We finally got over the hump," Smart said.
“We can’t even quite close the door," rookie head coach Ime Udoka said. “We have to grind it out."
The Celtics play the vaunted Golden State Warriors (stars Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have won three titles and been in six Finals since 2015) in Game 1 of the Finals Thursday at the Chase Center in Mission Bay.
Boston is an underdog against the Warriors, but the Celts have been the best team in the NBA since late January (40-13) and their defining win in Miami makes them 7-2 on the road in this year’s playoffs. They haven’t lost consecutive games since March.
It will be the Celtics’ 22nd trip to the championship round, the first since Kevin Garnett and Co. lost to the Lakers in 2010. The Celtics are 17-4 overall in the Finals, but have won only once (2008) since Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale patrolled the parquet at the Old Garden in 1986.
Coming into the night, the Celtics were 25-9 all time in Game 7s. Bill Russell never lost a Game 7 (10-0). Miami coach Erik Spoelstra was 4-0 in conference final elimination games.
“We know what’s on the line," Udoka said before the game. “This is possibly our last game of the season . . . We faced two elimination games in our last series [vs. Milwaukee]."
Playing great defense (”defense is our identity" — Udoka) and crushing the Heat in transition, the Celtics burst to a 15-point lead (24-9) in the first eight minutes and led, 32-17 after one. No team in NBA history has lost a Game 7 after leading by at least 15 after one.
It was a perfect start for Boston, the polar opposite of everything we saw in Game 6. Tatum and Brown scored at will, Horford (who has never played in the NBA Finals) blocked Max Strus at the rim, Grant Williams came off the bench for seven quick points, and the Celtics took the crowd out of the game. Boston scored 13 fast break points in 12 minutes.
It was reminiscent of Game 4 when the Celtics led, 29-11 after one. It had many of us asking, “What are we doing here? Why was it necessary to play seven games to establish the better team in this series?"
Everything was a struggle for Miami. After making 24 of 25 free throws in Game 6, the Heat missed eight foul shots in the first half and made only one of their first 10 threes. They also suffered multiple breakdowns on defense.
Boston’s first-half lead peaked at 17 (34-17), but Miami cut the margin to six at intermission.
The Heat trimmed it to four early in the third, but Tatum and Smart quickly pushed it back to 14 and the Celtics settled for an 82-75 lead after three.
“We just have to stay the course," Spoelstra told ESPN after three quarters. “We’re in pretty good shape."
Miami fell behind by 12 in the fourth as the Celtics tightened the screws defensively, forcing the Heat to miss nine straight shots. A three by Tatum made it 93-81 with six minutes left.
Then came the late-game chaos. And Butler’s pull-up three. A clean look.
“As it was leaving his hand, I thought for sure it was going down," Spoelstra said.
The shot did not go down.
So now the Celtics are going to the Finals with a new generation of stars. And just like in the days of Russell, Cousy, Havlicek, Cowens, Bird, Pierce and Garnett, the Green Team from Causeway Street gives Boston a chance for a championship.
Read more Celtics stories
- ‘Feels like it was always meant to be this way:’ How the Celtics escaped the Heat and set up a seismic NBA Finals
- Dan Shaughnessy: Finally, the Celtics earn their chance to bring another championship to Boston
- On Basketball: When things got tough, this Celtics team got tough — and they finally proved they belong with the elite
- How it happened: Celtics fend off Heat in Game 7, 100-96, to advance to NBA Finals for first time since 2010
- Instant analysis: Celtics claw out a Game 7 they never trailed, and other observations
- As Celtics celebrate NBA Finals berth, coach Ime Udoka doesn’t want the world to lose focus on Uvalde shooting
- Celtics-Warriors NBA Finals series tips off Thursday in San Francisco; see the schedule
- Four things to know about the Warriors, the Celtics’ opponent in the 2022 NBA Finals
- Jayson Tatum, sporting No. 24 band in honor of Kobe Bryant, wins inaugural Larry Bird trophy
- Jimmy Butler nearly carried the Heat to the NBA Finals, but can’t deny it: Celtics ‘deserve the win’