The Celtics were staring at elimination. Now, they’re looking history dead in the eyes, on the brink of the greatest comeback the NBA has ever seen.
Game 7s are naturally replete with drama and consequences. Those stakes are amplified for the never-say-die Celtics. On Monday night at TD Garden, the Green either become the first NBA team to rally from down 3-0 to win a series or they prematurely play the last game of their season, squandering a gift-wrapped title shot.
That unavoidable dichotomy frames the final coda of this riveting, roller coaster of fortunes Eastern Conference finals. It will either feel all good or all for naught.
It would be fitting for the NBA’s most fabled franchise to go boldly where no team has gone before. History is the Celtics’ brand, woven into the franchise’s fabric. It would be apropos for this iteration of the Celtics, a bunch of basketball BASE jumpers who live to flirt with their demise, to become the first team to do it. One-hundred and fifty teams before them have tried and 150 have failed. But there’s always a first time.
Who’s betting against the Celtics now? They have bounced back like a rubber band of brothers. Destiny is banging at their door. All they have to do is answer. That shouldn’t be difficult for a team that does its best work when it’s do or be done. Plus, this comeback for the ages feels ordained following Derrick White’s Miami Miracle in Game 6, a prayer-answering, buzzer-beating putback that’s instantly part of Celtics lore.
“It gives you a supreme boost in confidence, man. It doesn’t get too much worse than being down 0-3. We feel like we’ve been to hell and back,” said Jaylen Brown, who has come alive the last two games after averaging 16.7 points and shooting 37.7 percent in the first three games. “We feel like we can face any adversity that gets thrown at us in the duration of the game or the duration of the season or in the postseason.
“It all means nothing if we don’t come out and give our best effort on our home floor on Monday night.”
True. Fail to finish the job, and you’re a footnote instead of postseason pioneers. Your performance and your roster will be picked apart ad nauseam.
Concerningly, the Celtics tend to handle good times and good fortune like someone handling a hot casserole dish sans oven mitts — they burn themselves and drop it as fast as possible.
The latent fear is that the Celtics lose the survival instinct that has fueled five straight elimination-game victories this postseason. That subconsciously they’re contented by the accomplishment of proving detractors wrong and becoming just the fourth team down 3-0 to force a Game 7, joining the 1951 New York Knicks, the 1994 Denver Nuggets, and the 2003 Portland Trail Blazers.
“We’re all aware it’s not time to celebrate. We didn’t accomplish anything,” said Jayson Tatum. “We won a big game that we had to win in incredible fashion. We’re proud of the way we played, proud of the way we figured it out.
“But the job is far from finished … and we’ve got to be ready on Monday. It’s not over.”
We’ve heard the Celtics say the right thing before. Tatum swore the Celtics had learned from their mistakes about not finishing teams, about “going in with the mind-set that it’s over, and they’re going to give up,” in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks.
Then … Boston blew a 13-point fourth-quarter lead at home to the Hawks and went to Game 6.
The Heat feel like the 1986 Red Sox after losing Game 6 of the World Series. They thought they had it wrapped up, only to see it slip away in unthinkable, heartbreaking fashion.
Meanwhile, the Celtics feel like the 2004 Red Sox. They even had Johnny Damon from that cathartic comeback team in attendance for Game 6 in Miami.
But Boston can’t bank on omens, momentum, and emotion.
Miami is not the better team, but they are the more mentally consistent one. The Derrick White Deliverance shouldn’t have been necessary. It wouldn’t have been had the Celtics avoided a meltdown in the final four minutes with a 10-point lead.
They tend to crack in close games. To reach this juncture, the Celtics were always going to have to win a game like Saturday’s.
It could be argued the miraculous element of Game 6 wasn’t White’s tip-in. It was that the three-for-all Celtics won a game in which they hit a season-low seven threes and shot a season-worst 7 for 35 (20 percent) from their hoops happy place.
The Celtics sport a losing record (30-31) when they shoot below 40 percent from behind the 3-point line. They’re 38-2 when they shoot 40 percent or better.
Only two Celtics made threes, Marcus Smart, whose last of 11 attempts (he made four) spun out for the fateful putback, and White, who shot 3 of 7.
“That was always the question. What happens when we don’t shoot the ball well?” said threes-obsessed coach Joe Mazzulla.
Brown told TNT: “We had to change our identity mid-playoffs. We’ve been living and dying by the three-ball kind of on offense. But we had to make a stand and be like that defense is going to win us these games.”
Hopefully, Boston got its 3-point clunker out of the way, and Smart and the Jays don’t endure a repeat of Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, when they lost to LeBron James and Cleveland on the parquet, clanging three after three to the tune of 7 for 39.
Winning two games when the threes don’t fall feels unlikely.
Favorably, no franchise does Game 7 better than the Green. It’s as historically ingrained in the club as the leprechaun logo. The Celtics are 27-9 in Game 7s, the best winning percentage in NBA history. They’re 22-5 in those contests on Causeway Street.
The Celtics are the first team down 3-0 to force a seventh game on their home floor. Of course, that might not be the advantage it appears. Curiously, the Celtics are 5-5 at home this postseason and 11-11 over the last two postseasons.
“Don’t let us get one,” was the rallying cry. It sounded like false bravado, but with talent, heart, togetherness, execution, and a little luck, the Celtics have made that proclamation ring true.
The Celtics need to get just one more to author the greatest comeback story pro basketball has ever seen.
History and this series is theirs for the taking.