We could do analysis from Game 7 between the Celtics and Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday, but that probably isn’t what you’re looking for.
After all, you already know what happened: The Celtics never trailed and barely won. They led by as many 17. The lead shrank as low as two in the final minute, and Jimmy Butler nearly delivered the Celtics their most crushing blow since 2010 with a 3-pointer that would have given the Heat a one-point lead that felt like 20.
Instead, the Celtics held on and are headed to the Finals. Jayson Tatum pumped his fist and roared as the buzzer sounded. Everyone embraced. Al Horford collapsed to the floor.
“I didn’t know how to act,” an animated, visibly relieved Horford admitted after the game.
Ime Udoka reminded his players in the postgame locker room that the Celtics don’t hang banners for making it to the Finals, but the Celtics earned this chance to celebrate, even if it’s only for an evening.
“I think it’s all right to be proud of ourselves today and enjoy this,” Jayson Tatum said. “We’re not satisfied. We know we’ve still got a long way to go.”
The Celtics can think about the Warriors in the morning. For takeaways, it’s probably worth taking a look back at what Sunday’s win means to some of the Celtics’ players.
As Tatum embraced Jaylen Brown after the game — two young stars both inextricably linked to Celtics past, present and future, as well as to each other — Tatum pounded Brown on the back.
“They said we couldn’t play together,” Tatum exalted, as both players grinned broadly.
Often players are a little hyperbolic when they paint the media in broad “they” strokes but here, Tatum wasn’t: “They” quite literally did say he and Brown couldn’t play together, some of “them” as recently as Friday when the Celtics dropped Game 6 at home. “They” questioned the roster, the chemistry, the resolve. Many of “them” questioned Tatum.
Tatum can’t really blame “them” though — he questioned himself too.
“It was tough,” he said. “Like truly. There were definitely some tough moments throughout the season where — not doubt yourself but maybe question, right, question, can we do it? You start to realize how hard it is to win. You start to question yourself; are you good enough to be that guy?”
Tatum wore an armband for Kobe Bryant in Game 7 — a constant, purple reminder that Tatum sees himself as a piece of basketball history. He puts pressure on himself to achieve accolades at the same age as his superstar predecessors. He has a timeline, and he wants to see it to completion.
Famously, when Tatum was a child, he used to tell his mother he didn’t want to be like Kobe, he wanted to be Kobe.
Bryant won his first title at 21. Tatum is 24. Still, he’s one step closer now, and he is undeniable to his peers.
“He’s a superstar, and he deserved that,” Jimmy Butler said after the game. “They deserve the win. I wish them the best moving forward. He’s one hell of a player, that’s for damn sure.”
It’s wild to remember that Brown was booed when the Celtics took him with the third pick in 2016 because fans wanted the team to take Kris Dunn and trade him for the aforementioned Butler.
Still, Brown never seemed to hold it against anyone.
“I am going to war for this city,” he told Celtics.com, a quote that surfaced thanks to a viral tweet after Sunday’s game.
Before he was drafted, Brown attended a Warriors game in the Finals and met Andre Iguodala. In a different clip that cropped back up on Monday, Brown and Iguodala shook hands, and Iguodala told him to keep working.
“I want to get here so bad,” a 19-year-old Brown said, nodding his head and staring at the rafters. “I will be here.”
Six years later, Brown was instrumental as the Celtics pulled it off.
“This is what all the work you put in your whole life for is to be in these moments, to play in the Finals, to represent not just the organization but your family, your community, your extended community,” Brown said. “It doesn’t get too much better than that.”
On Thursday, Horford lost his grandfather — a man to whom he was “extremely close.”
This has been a tough week.
“My family [was] just kind of telling me to just go out there and play,” Horford said. “That’s something that he would have wanted me to do, to just continue on and really just try and stay focused and understand that he’s at peace now.”
Fortunately, Horford seems to have found a home that can embrace him in Boston. His path started winding in odd directions when he left Atlanta — his only NBA city for years — for the Celtics in the summer of 2015. He and Isaiah Thomas made for a successful duo until the Celtics traded for Kyrie Irving, at which point Horford paired perfectly with the Celtics’ young core (but not Irving, as much). He’s been to Philly. He’s been to Oklahoma City. Life happened in the interim, and fortunately, his phone keeps track of it for him.
“This past week, I would look at — on the phone I would look at photos from a year ago, exactly what I was doing at the moments, and today my son actually graduated from kindergarten,” Horford said. “So I remember that we had pictures for him and I picked him up from school and we had the cupcakes and we had all this stuff.”
Horford has had a phenomenal career. He can boast five All-Star appearances, an All-NBA team, and 141 playoff games — the most in NBA history without playing a game in the Finals.
His 142nd playoff game will be his first.
“Nobody deserves it more than this guy on my right here, man,” Brown said. “… I’m proud to be able to share this moment with a veteran, a mentor, a brother, a guy like Al Horford, man. He’s been great all season, really my whole career.”
Marcus Smart always wanted to be a point guard, but the Celtics simply kept acquiring them.
First it was Thomas, who was supposed to be a microwave scorer off the bench but who somehow morphed into a star. Then it was Irving, the first in a hypothetical duo or trio that was supposed to arrive. Then came Kemba Walker, who — as it turned out — was much nearer to the end of his career than anyone knew.
Smart had been waiting for a while. This season, he finally got his chance.
At first, the experiment looked like it might fall apart. But after all of the drama, the Celtics pulled themselves together and built a real contender with Smart as the lead ball-handler.
“I think that growth is inevitable when you do things like that, when you bleed and you sweat and you cry together,” Smart said. “It’s only right that you build together to get to something great, and that’s to get over this hump for us.”
Robert Williams played through pain — so much so that he was one of the few players Udoka shouted out specifically in the locker room after he was soaked by water bottles.
“He can’t be himself to his standard and what he wants to do, and we’re not asking him to be the Rob when he’s 100 percent healthy,” Udoka told reporters. “He has to understand that.”
Grant Williams has played a little bit of everything in his career — from small-ball five, to power forward, to this season’s iteration as a sort of beefed up, floor-spacing wing. He played sparingly last year in the broken post-pandemic season, but he turned himself into one of the league’s best 3-point shooters for much of the year. On Sunday, when his 3-point shot failed him, he still managed to score 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting.
Derrick White’s chaotic season is difficult to even imagine. He was traded while on the road and had to pack up for Boston quickly. He and his pregnant wife lived out of a hotel for a while, and as the playoffs heated up, he and the team prepared for him to miss time for the birth of his son. When his wife went into labor, he flew home, met his son Hendrix, then re-joined the team after missing Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Now — after a highly successful Eastern Conference Finals, he can say he was a critical part of a Finals run. The NBA is a tough place, but it can be a rewarding one too.
Ime Udoka and Brad Stevens
Stevens’ tenure as President of Basketball Operations started on shaky ground, but he quickly proved he was ready to build a contender — he moved decisively to free himself of Dennis Schröder and Enes Freedom after signing both during the offseason, bringing on players like White and Daniel Theis, both of whom have played a role. He assessed what the Celtics needed and what they needed to offload, and he seems to be hitting
Udoka, meanwhile, took over at the helm for Stevens and has proven to be everything the Celtics needed both schematically and mentally.
“He did not want it to be easy,” Smart said of Udoka. “He didn’t ask for it, he didn’t cry about the circumstances. He didn’t cry about where we were in the standings early on in this year. He just stayed on us to keep going. When you’ve got a coach like that, it’s kind of hard not to follow because you don’t want to be that guy that’s the one, ‘Oh, man, here we go, we’re this, we’re this,’ when everybody else is moving forward.”
The Celtics have a lot of work ahead of them. They know it. But since this core began trying to put together a contender after the Celtics drafted Smart in 2014, the swings have vacillated wildly between “This is the team of the future” and “Trade everyone for parts.”
Nights like Sunday have to taste sweet for players who have put in a lot of minutes for the Celtics.
“No matter what adversity is put in front of us, no obstacle, no loop, we’re going to get through it, we’re going to get over it, we’re going to get around it,” Smart said. “That was just how we live our lives on the court. We really, truly believe that.
“We know we’re going up against a great team with the Warriors, great players, great organization. They have the track record to prove it. They know exactly what it takes. They’ve been here. They’re vets. We know we’ve got a long road in front of us, but we’re up for the challenge.”
The Finals begin on Thursday.
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