If this NBA Finals run by the Celtics feels familiar, it should.
Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum might be a generation removed from the Ray Allen-Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce team that won the title in 2008, but the marches both teams took toward the Larry O’Brien Trophy are linked historically.
The Celtics who raised the banner 14 years ago took a grueling path that required two seven-game series to get out of the Eastern Conference.
It started against a Hawks team that just wouldn’t go away — or lose a game on their home floor. Atlanta coach Mike Woodson convinced a young team — with a rookie Al Horford as one of its anchors — that it could push the star-loaded Celtics to the brink.
“From Day 1, I told this team that anything is possible when you get to the playoffs,” Woodson said at the time, “and this team believes that.”
The series stretched to seven games and there was genuine worry in the Celtics locker room when a team constructed for an instant championship faced a win-or-go-home situation in the first round.
“If we need a speech today, then we have problems,” then-Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.
Those Celtics avoided disaster, eliminating the Hawks with a 99-65 win in Game 7, then played with fire again in the second round against the Cavaliers but again needed seven games. They ultimately beat the Lakers in a six-game Finals series to hang banner No. 17.
That title run took 26 games, the longest postseason run in playoff history. But those types of runs typically don’t end well.
That Celtics team is one of just two teams in NBA history to play two Game 7s before the Finals and still win a championship. The other was the 1988 Lakers.
Thirteen teams in league history have won two seven-game series before the Finals. Four of those teams didn’t even reach the Finals. Of the nine that did, six lost once they got there and two of them were swept.
After stunning the Warriors Thursday with a fourth-quarter hailstorm of 3-pointers on the way to a 120-108 win in Game 1 of the Finals, a sweep is the furthest thing from the Celtics’ minds.
Their run started smoothly enough, with a sweep of the Nets in the first round. Then they went seven games with the Bucks and seven games again with the Heat.
They’ve been tested — first by two of the best individual offensive players in the league in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, then by the force of Giannis Antetokounmpo, then by the will of Jimmy Butler and the Heat.
Those tests are the reason coach Ime Udoka believes his team is primed to handle whatever comes against the Warriors.
“Our path this year — two Game 7s and playing some high-level teams and taking a tough route — I think that’s prepared us more than anything,” Udoka said before the Celtics stunned the Warriors in Game 1.
The experience that comes with multiple Game 7s is one thing. The exhaustion is completely different. The Celtics have already played 19 games this postseason. They’ll play at least 22 by the time it’s done.
The three-day gap between their Game 7 win over Miami and the start of the Finals was a much-needed break, Udoka said.
“The physical load that we had, obviously playing two Game 7s in stressful environments, I think that helped our guys in general,” he said. “But mentally, to get away and obviously refresh and reset and get ready for the Finals is a big thing as well.
“Three days felt like a week for us as a coaching staff, the preparation time, and I think that’ll bode well for our guys physically going forward.”
Players aren’t necessarily dwelling on fatigue when they can see a ring within their reach. Pierce wasn’t in 2008.
“The only thing on my mind is getting a win, getting a step closer to being in the NBA Finals,” Pierce said as the Celtics staved off Detroit in six games in the conference finals.
Of course, the Celtics could end up in another series that goes the distance. The 1994 Knicks are the only team besides the 1988 Lakers that played three Game 7s. They finally ran out of gas against the Rockets in the Finals.
Over this gilded era of six Finals appearances in eight years, the Warriors have played just three Game 7s, including a Finals loss to the Cavaliers in 2016. Since Brown arrived in Boston in 2014, the Celtics have played in six.
But if the Celtics manage to bring home a title, history says they’ll have to make this series shorter than their last two.
|First Game 7
|Second Game 7
|Total Playoff Games
|Beat 76ers in conference semifinals
|Beat Knicks in conference finals
|Swept by Bucks in Finals
|Beat Hawks in conference semifinals
|Beat Spurs in conference finals
|Lost five-game series to Sonics in Finals
|Beat Bucks in conference semifinals
|Beat Pistons in conference finals
|Lost six-game series to Lakers in Finals
|Los Angeles Lakers
|Beat Jazz in conference semifinals
|Beat Mavericks in conference finals
|Won seven-game series against Pistons in Finals
|New York Knicks
|Beat Bulls in conference semifinals
|Beat Pacers in conference finals
|Lost seven-game series to Rockets in Finals
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.