MIAMI – The shot wasn't in the air for more than a few seconds, but for the collection of green-clad players watching, it felt like an eternity. For three quarters the Celtics had fended off a relentless, never-ending Heat charge, battling as a 15-point first quarter lead was whittled to six at the end of the second, and as a 12-point edge with 3 ½ minutes to play was sliced to two. Now there they were, 17 seconds on the clock, up two, a trip to the Finals on the line and Jimmy Butler, the latest villain in Boston's long history of them, was pulling up from three.
“I was hoping to God,” Jaylen Brown said, his voice trailing off.
“It was nerve wracking,” Al Horford said. “He got a good look.”
He did. But whether it was the 48 minutes he played, the balky knee that has troubled him or the leprechaun that has seemingly attached itself to these Celtics since midseason, Butler's shot came up short. Horford collected the rebound. Marcus Smart made a pair of free throws.
That's right: The Celtics are headed to the NBA Finals. From the podium, Smart allowed it all to soak in. Smart is the longest-tenured Celtic. He's not the captain—Ime Udoka declined to name one this season—but he might as well be. This was Smart's fourth trip to the conference finals. He has been the understudy to Isaiah Thomas, backup to Kyrie Irving, defensive replacement for Kemba Walker. He has been the subject of countless trade rumors and bore his share of the blame whenever things fell apart. As he sat there, a gray NBA Finals hat covering his green-streaked hair, Smart could only marvel at the journey.
“We've been through a lot together,” Smart said.
Smart was referring to the past, about the three previous failed trips to the conference finals, about last year's .500 record, about a team that for so long seemed destined to be broken up. Visions of Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis once danced in the heads of Boston's front office execs, but it's the Celtics' young core of Smart, Brown and Jayson Tatum that pushed this team through a horrific early season start and is now one series away from delivering the franchise's 18th championship.
“The core group of guys, the guys on the bench, this coaching staff, this whole organization, they trusted us,” Smart said. “They allowed us to fix it and work it out.”
That includes Ime Udoka. Udoka's hire last spring drew widespread praise in NBA circles. By late December, it looked like a disaster. The Celtics were hovering around .500. Udoka, a first-time head coach, looked to be in over his head. He publicly tattooed his team after bad losses. The man that who spent years coaching under Gregg Popovich seemed to think he was him.
He appeared at risk of losing the locker room.
Instead, he united it.
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“[He] embodies everything that we embody,” Smart said. “He kind of puts it on you to let you know that, hey, I'm not taking no slack. And if you don't like it, you can get up out of here.”
Horford wanted to be there. Horford ended his first run in Boston in 2019, snatching a $109 million offer from the 76ers. His first season in Philadelphia, though, proved to be a poor fit. He was shipped to Oklahoma City in 2020, forced to spend a season in basketball purgatory. That season revitalized him, mentally and physically. He embraced a trade back to Boston last summer and quickly became a key part of Boston's frontcourt. Horford scored just five points in Game 7. But he chipped in 14 rebounds and anchored a defense that held Miami to 42% shooting.
“It's incredible what he has done all season,” said Udoka.
Later, Horford, who will be the first Dominican to play in a Finals, reflected on his journey. Playoff failures in Atlanta, Boston and Philadelphia have finally led him to this. Earlier this week, Horford caught himself scrolling through photo memories from a year earlier, his Thunder season long finished. He found pictures of his son's kindergarten graduation. He swiped pictures of his family eating cupcakes and celebrating the achievement. “It's like perspective for me,” said Horford. “I'm just very grateful to be in this position with these guys.”
Tatum was a rookie when the Celtics made the conference finals in 2018, overcoming season-ending injuries to Gordon Hayward and Irving to push LeBron James and the Cavaliers to seven games before bowing out. Back then, Tatum believed a trip to the Finals was inevitable. He quickly discovered it was not. Tatum admitted: Boston's early season struggles wore on him. “There were definitely some tough moments throughout the season where [you don't] doubt yourself but maybe question, can we do it?” said Tatum. “You start to realize how hard it is to win. You start to question yourself; are you good enough to be that guy? But I think you just trust in yourself, trust in the work that you put in to get to this point and continue to work, and it can't rain forever. Good days were coming.”
They were. Tatum averaged a career-high 26.9 points during the regular season before besting Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the playoffs. On Sunday, Tatum's longtime trainer, Drew Hanlen, sent Tatum a quote from Kobe Bryant, Tatum's childhood hero, on something he learned from Michael Jordan. “Fast forward years from now,” Bryant once recalled Jordan saying. “Nobody is going to look at it and say you lost because that person had a bad attitude. They're going to say you weren't able to get it done. So you have to figure it out. Come hell or high water, you've got to figure it out.” Tatum watched film of Bryant before the game. When he got to the arena, he slipped on a purple No. 24 armband.
“My idol,” Tatum said. “My inspiration.”
Tatum wasn't overwhelming in Game 7. Miami's steady diet of double teams saw to that. But, like Bryant, he got it done. He was 9-for-21 from the floor. He connected on 4-of-7 of his threes. He pulled down 10 rebounds. He collected six assists. He played 46 grueling minutes, outscoring Butler down the stretch.
“I came in with the mindset today that I was willing to do anything it took to win this game, however that looked,” Tatum said. “The only thing that mattered was winning. Y'all weren't going to talk about how many points or how many shots I missed if we lost. It was all about, did you get it done or not? I knew that coming in today and the group knew that.”
Awaiting Boston is Golden State, and this is a matchup the Celtics can win. Boston dropped a four-point loss to the Warriors during the dark days of December before blasting Golden State by 22 on the road in March. The Celtics' physical, switching defense gave the Dubs problems in that game and should again this series. The Warriors, though, are a team steeped in Finals experience. None of Boston's rotation players have ever played in one.
“it would be all for naught if we go lay an egg in the Finals,” Udoka said. “We understand that. Guys were quick to celebrate but quick to flip the page and say, we've got four more. We don't hang or celebrate Eastern Conference championships in the Celtics organization.”
Indeed. They have one now though, which is no small achievement. A team that appeared lottery-bound in December will now compete for a championship. In a wild, unpredictable NBA season, few things are as improbable as that.
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