Fear not, Boston sports fans. The Celtics aren’t going the way of the Bruins, who dropped out of sight quickly in Boston’s playoff spring of hope and expectation.
The sons of Red Auerbach and Bill Russell Sunday advanced to the NBA’s final four with a pulsating, 112-88 Game 7 thrashing of the Philadelphia 76ers. Jayson Tatum scored an NBA Game 7 record 51 points in a Mother’s Day celebration of Love & Basketball at TD Garden.
Your fabled hoop franchise will take on the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals starting Wednesday on Causeway Street. It’s always a mistake to get ahead of ourselves in these matters, but ... who can resist? If the favored Celtics beat the Heat, there’s a fair chance we’ll get Boston-LA in the NBA Finals, a renewal of Russell vs. Chamberlain, Bird vs. Magic, and Pierce vs. Kobe.
The Celtics are in this position because Tatum channeled his inner Bird/Sam Jones and buried the Sixers with a hail of 3-point heaves and Globetrotter drives to the basket. After struggling in Games 4, 5, and 6 of the series (Tatum shot 0 for 19 in the first quarter of those three games), he lit up the scoreboard and came within 3 points of John Havlicek’s franchise-playoff-best 54 points against the Hawks in 1973.
“With our season on the line I was excited to bounce back,’’ said Tatum. “I was relieved and happy about that. Our season could have been over in Game 6. They had us on the ropes but we figured out a way to win. This was a chance to come home and have another opportunity.’’
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Celtics rookie coach Joe Mazzulla said. “... He will do whatever it takes to win. He had a historic night. Those guys did it together and that’s why we have a chance.’’
“When JT’s playing like that,’’ we’re going to be extremely hard to beat,’’ said Tatum’s wingman, Jaylen Brown.
Brown scored 25 points and played flypaper defense on James Harden, who looked like he might calcify in the middle of one of his failed drives to the rim. Harden shot 3 for 11, committed five turnovers, and pretty much quit when the Celtic tsunami washed over the Sixers in the 33-10 third quarter. Sixers center Joel Embiid, the regular season MVP, was guarded by Al Horford and Marcus Smart and made only 5 of 18 shots and committed four turnovers.
There was mounting pressure on the Celtics coming into the game. Boston made the NBA Finals last year and had the second-best win total in 2022-23 (top winner Milwaukee was bounced by Miami in the first round). The Celtics needed six games to get past the pedestrian Atlanta Hawks in Round 1, then lost three of the first five against the five-deep Sixers in Round 2. They lost three home playoff games in the first two rounds. Before Tatum exploded in the final four minutes of Game 6 in Philly, there was legit worry the Celts might go the way of the Bruins.
Brown implored fans to bring some noise Sunday and Celtic Nation responded.
Few will remember that the Sixers actually led by 9 points late in the first quarter. Philadelphia had a chance to go up by 10 early in the second quarter, but Harden lost the ball out of bounds and picked up a flagrant 1 for a elbow to Brown’s face, which bloodied his lip. It resulted in a 4-point possession and a big shift in momentum.
“It sparked the Garden,’’ said Brown. “We could feel that energy tonight. That was a great basketball environment.’’
From that point forward, Harden was Joe Hardy from “Damn Yankees.” His Faustian bargain had expired. He was an NBA old man and young bucks Tatum and Brown could have been cited for elder abuse.
Boston’s lead was a mere 55-52 at intermission. Tobias Harris tied the game with a three to start the third, and that was the end for Philly. A 28-3 run punched the Celtics’ ticket to Miami. Tatum scored 17 in the third, and splashed 4 of 5 from international waters. All of them were of the spectacular variety.
The Celtics simply ran the Sixers off the floor and Philly morphed back into the team that Boston’s toyed with over the last five years. Philly committed five turnovers in the 28-3 Celtic stretch. Tatum had 42 points when the third ended with the Celtics leading, 88-62.
There is still plenty to worry about. Miami’s veteran coach Erik Spoelstra will be a formidable foe for the 34-year-old Mazzulla and the Heat have a great, two-way player in Jimmy Butler. Miami took Boston to seven games in last spring’s conference finals and we all know the Celtics like to make things harder than they need to be.
Boston outscored Philly by an aggregate 62 points in the series. So why did it take seven games?
It is the sixth year in the league together for Tatum and Brown and both were anointed top-10 status in regular-season voting. The C’s made it to the Finals last year and held a 2-1 series lead before losing three in a row.
Tatum and Brown. Drafted by Danny Ainge to win championships for Boston.
This should be their time.