The Celtics advance to the Eastern Conference Finals following Friday’s Game 7 win over the defending champion Raptors.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — This was everything the Boston Celtics feared and everything they wanted to be. Shots didn’t fall but Jaylen Brown did. The Toronto Raptors made Kemba Walker look like somebody else but he insisted on being himself. And in the 48th minute of Game 7, in the 346th minute of the series, Marcus Smart hit the Raptors with a weapon the Celtics had not always shown: wisdom.
Boston led the defending champs, 89-87. Toronto’s Norman Powell pushed the ball upcourt. Smart backpedaled. Powell crossed him over. As Smart gave chase, he flashed back to a play from Game 6, when Powell got fouled and converted a three-point play.
“I was just telling myself,” Smart said afterward, “‘He has to dunk it (to score.) I’m not going to get no foul. I’m just going to meet him up top and see who wins that battle.’”
Smart won that battle with an extraordinary left-handed block. The Raptors would not score again.
Here come the Celtics, tougher than they were a month ago, capable of winning eight more games and the franchise’s 18th championship. They needed every minute of this game to win it. They might have needed every game of this series to win the championship. They were in no mood to thank the Raptors for most of the last two weeks, but now they can say it: Toronto made them better.
“I’ve coached in a lot of playoff games, a lot of playoff series, a lot of NCAA tournament games,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We saw more defenses and more stuff … right when something worked, the next play it didn’t work any more. They keep you on your toes the whole time. (Nick Nurse) is a heck of a coach. (Kyle) Lowry is up there with the best I’ve ever coached against, I think, in the game, at putting people in spots and all that stuff, especially on the defensive end.
“We should definitely be hardened. We should definitely have a lot more in our toolbox.”
The Celtics opened the game with some of the prettiest basketball anybody has played in the bubble, cutting and passing and jumping to a 19-7 lead that would have been much bigger if they had made more open shots. This looked like it might be an easy win. They are lucky it wasn’t. They are an odd bunch, highly experienced but incredibly young, and they grew up a little in this series.
For most of this series, the Raptors were the grittier team, and there is no shame in that; the Raptors are probably the toughest team in the league. But the Celtics matched Toronto’s will in Game 7.
When they are close, Game 7s in basketball are mesmerizing, but they are often ugly. They can feel like the fifth set of tennis a match or the third overtime of a hockey playoff game, with everybody tired and out of fresh ideas but determined to make one play in case it’s the one that will matter most.
Consider everything that transpired in just the final 10 minutes for the Celtics.
With 9:43 left, Brown dunked on a contested fast break, then landed, slipped, and did a split. Groins are not meant to do what Brown’s groin did. He looked like he might be done for a while. He never left the game.
“To be honest, adrenaline took over,” Brown said after the game. “I couldn’t feel anything. I’m feeling it now. But in the moment I didn’t feel s—. It hurt for a minute, and I heard my teammates and all the pain just went away.”
With 5:21 left, the Celtics made their final field goal of the series. They didn’t know that, of course. But it was that kind of night. They would have to win with defense and guile.
With 1:21 left, starting center Daniel Theis fouled out.
With 58.2 seconds left, Smart blocked Powell’s shot.
The ball was in Kemba Walker’s hands. He had a frustrating series. Toronto threw a box-and-one defense at the Celtics—“they did it to break his rhythm,” Stevens said—and Walker struggled to counter it. The Raptors are so quick defensively that guys who should have been left open-ended up covered. But when Walker left Charlotte for Boston last summer, he did it for moments like this.
He looked at Stevens to let him know: Don’t call timeout.
He looked at his teammates to tell them: Don’t move.
He drove and dished to Grant Williams, who got fouled by Lowry, which felt like the end. Williams had a chance to put the Celtics up four, and Lowry, the Raptors’ engine, had fouled out.
With 35.4 seconds left, Williams missed both free throws.
And then came Jayson Tatum, the young forward who is still growing into his own stardom. Tatum was magnificent all night, scoring and rebounding like an MVP. He grabbed the rebound, got fouled by Powell, and made a free throw.
With 7.9 seconds left, Walker made two free throws to seal Boston’s 92-87 win.
“Whoo! Whoo!” Tatum screamed, to nobody in particular, after winning a nominal road game. Earlier in the evening, just a few hundred steps away, Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers had lost to the Nuggets. A year ago in this round, Leonard hit a last-second Game 7-winner to beat the 76ers, on the way to a surprising championship. Last year, the Raptors showed the Celtics it can be done. This year, they helped teach them how to do it.