Not this time. After being thwarted on the doorstep of the NBA Finals three other times in the previous five seasons, the Boston Celtics have broken through.
The beasts of the East, again.
And now a chance at an NBA title awaits.
Jayson Tatum scored 26 points, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart each added 24, and the Celtics held off a frantic rally in the final seconds to beat the Miami Heat 100-96 on Sunday night and reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
“This is amazing,” Smart said. “We finally got over the hump.”
Al Horford added 14 rebounds for the Celtics, who never trailed on the way to pulling off a Game 7 win on the road — and not including the bubble, that was the first such victory for the storied franchise since beating Milwaukee for the 1974 NBA title.
It was Boston’s first Game 7 win on another team’s home floor since topping Milwaukee for the 1974 NBA title; technically, the Celtics were the “road” team when they beat Toronto in a Game 7 two years ago at the restart bubble, but that was at Walt Disney World.
Next up for Boston: the Golden State Warriors in a series that starts Thursday in San Francisco.
Jimmy Butler, who willed Miami into Game 7 by scoring 47 points on Friday in Boston, led the Heat with 35 points in what became their season finale. Bam Adebayo added 25 for the Heat, who were down 11 with under three minutes to go before trying one last rally.
An 9-0 run, capped by a 3-pointer from Max Strus with 51 seconds left, got the Heat within 98-96. They had a chance for the lead with about 17 seconds to go when Butler tried a 3-pointer from the right wing, but it missed — and the Celtics escaped.
“It’s just one of those really tough moments,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You can’t prepare for it. … It’s one of the worst feelings into the world to address your locker room after a game like this.”
Boston forced the Heat into nine consecutive misses during a crucial stretch of the fourth quarter, using that stretch to turn an 82-79 lead into a 90-79 edge — and the Celtics, who had lost each of their last four trips to the East finals, found a way to hold on.
The notion of Boston being finals bound would have been considered an unlikely proposition two or three months ago.
Ime Udoka’s first season as coach of the Celtics was not without immense challenges. Boston got off to a 2-5 start, lost to Milwaukee on Christmas Day to fall below .500 and was still saddled with a losing record as recently as late January.
Through 50 games, the Celtics were 25-25. No team had that sort of record through 50 games and made the NBA Finals since 1981, when the Houston Rockets started 22-28 and wound up making the title series — where they fell to Boston.
Now the Celtics will look to do the Rockets one better. That Rockets team got into the playoffs at 40-42. This Celtics team roared to life down the stretch and is still roaring.
They went 26-6 down the stretch of the regular season, and had an uncanny ability to bounce back. Boston is now 13-1 after losses over the last four-plus months.
“The road that we took to get here, not a lot of people believed in us,” Tatum said. “We took the toughest route. It looked out.”
The Celtics came out flying on Sunday. The Heat came out the opposite of flying.
Boston’s lead was 32-17 after one quarter — the largest ever by a road team after 12 minutes of a Game 7, four points bigger than Golden State’s lead over the Los Angeles Lakers back in the 1977 playoffs.
The Celtics set that tone with defense; they held Miami to 33% shooting in the opening quarter, 1-for-7 from 3-point range and outscored the Heat 13-4 on fast breaks.
The lead was still 15 with 2:36 left in the half, when Miami showed signs of life.
An 11-2 run is how the Heat ended the half, the burst sparked by 3s from Strus and Butler, then capped by four free throws from Lowry in the final 29 seconds. Butler was up to 24 points at the break — he didn’t miss a single second — and Miami had gotten within 55-49 going into the third.
Miami thought it had gotten within 56-54 when Strus rattled in a corner 3 early in the third. But the Celtics answered with a 9-1 run, which was even worse — the NBA replay center in Secaucus, New Jersey decided that Strus had stepped out of bounds, his 3 came off the board while the game was going, and a 56-54 game became 65-52.
The Heat kept clawing back, all the way to the end. They just couldn’t catch Boston.
“It’s heartbreaking when it ends like this,” Spoelstra said. “You certainly have to credit the Boston Celtics organization and their team and their coaching staff. … We tip our hats off to them. They are a heck of a basketball team.”
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