The Celtics defeated the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 100-96, to advance to their first NBA Finals since 2010. The Celtics, led by 24-year-old Jayson Tatum and 25-year-old Jaylen Brown, finally broke through after going to two previous Eastern Conference Finals together in 2018 and 2020. Brown and Marcus Smart also went to a Conference Finals in 2017 and lost. Now, these Celtics have crossed the threshold from up-and-coming team to elite championship contenders.
It began in round one against Brooklyn. Many questioned the Celtics playing for the number two seed during the last week of the regular season instead of coasting into the playoffs to play Chicago. Instead, the Celtics went for the two seed and a matchup with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets smoked the Celtics in five games in the first round in 2021. This spring, however, it was the Celtics who elevated their play above the Nets, sweeping Brooklyn out of the first round. The average margin of victory in each game was only 4.5 points (including a one-point buzzer beating Game 1 win), which was the third lowest for a sweep in NBA history. This showed a new level of mental toughness that the young Celtics core had lacked in previous years. Their menacing defense also frustrated Durant as much as anyone has in his entire career.
Boston’s reward for sweeping the Nets was a series against defending champion Milwaukee and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the best player in the world. The Celtics started slow and lost Game 1 at home before responding with a Game 2 win. The teams traded wins before a pivotal Game 5 in Boston. The Celtics played exceptionally poorly in the final few minutes, including two costly Smart turnovers, and lost to go down 3-2. Previous Celtic teams with this core would have not battled back as this year’s team did. Tatum had 46 points in Game 6 and Grant Williams had the game of his life in Game 7 to propel the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Miami was the final hurdle in the East for the Celtics. The Heat beat the Celtics in the 2020 Conference Finals due in large part to a greater will to win and more consistent execution. This time around, it was the Celtics who executed better overall than Miami including the only back-to-back wins in the series in Games 4 and 5. However, the Celtics faded in Game 6 after Derrick White hit a three to take the lead 97-94. The Celtics were outscored 17-6 the rest of the game and were forced to play a Game 7 in Miami. Much like the Milwaukee series, this was a moment that the Celtics would have faltered in earlier in their development. Instead, they controlled all of Game 7 and built a 13-point lead with three and a half minutes left. Things almost fell apart, though, as Miami went on an 11-0 and cut the Celtics lead to two with under a minute left. Jimmy Butler missed a three to take the lead and Smart hit two free throws to give the Celtics a 100-96 win and a Conference Championship. It was harder than it needed to be, but it was a major step forward.
For years, the Celtics have been building a team centered around Tatum, Brown and Smart. They’ve had exciting moments, but also their share of disappointments and frustrations. Since turning things around in the middle of January, they’ve been one of the best teams in the NBA. However, going 28-7 over the final 35 regular season games does not equate to becoming a true contender and an elite team. That takes beating the best in the east to reach the NBA Finals. For the first time since Kevin Garnett was traded, the Celtics have done that.
Up next is a Finals matchup with the Warriors dynasty. Things are never assured in the NBA and there is no guarantee the Celtics will be back in the future, but given what they’ve accomplished already this postseason they look like an elite team for years to come. Now they just need to finish the job.