BOSTON — Winning isn’t easy. The Celtics’ core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart know that very well.
That made Sunday night’s Game 7 win over the Heat to punch their ticket to the NBA Finals all the more special. The core’s moment has arrived after years of coming up short, and now they have a chance to etch themselves in Celtics lore.
After four Eastern Conference Final trips by Brown and Smart, and three by Tatum, the group finally has finally gotten over the proverbial hump. And they did it by taking the hardest possible route so far.
That’s really the only way this group knows how to do things. It has made them stronger, and has made these moments even more special.
In a postseason filled with big steps forward, winning a Game 7 in enemy territory with a trip to the Finals on the line is a huge step forward for this group. The Celtics have now knocked off Kevin Durant and the Nets, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champion Bucks, and Jimmy Butler and the Heat to get here. That path had them exacting revenge on the last three teams to eliminate them from the postseason.
The Celtics did it all with people doubting them every step of the way. Early in the season, when the C’s sat below .500, it was time to torch what the franchise had built since 2014. The Celtics figured it out though and became one of the best teams in the NBA over the final months of the regular season.
When the Celtics played for the two-seed on the final day of the season, doubters expected them to lose in the first round to the Nets. Boston, instead, swept Brooklyn.
When the Celtics fell behind the Bucks 3-2 and faced a must-win Game 6 in Milwaukee, the doubters said they were finished. Tatum then went out and had a big boy game in Game 6, and then the C’s trounced the Bucks at TD Garden in Game 7.
When the Celtics lost Game 6 to the Heat in Boston, they were pretty much buried. Road teams don’t win a Game 7. The Celtics did, and now they’re off to the NBA Finals.
The Celtics heard it all. They heard people saying they didn’t have what it takes to win. They heard people say that they were a lost cause. They heard people say it was time to break up Tatum and Brown.
They heard it all and they used it all as fuel and motivation. As they celebrated on the floor in Miami on Sunday night, Tatum smiled and embraced Brown, saying “They said we couldn’t play together.”
The duo has certainly proven that ideology incorrect. They are one of the best young duos in the NBA, the envy of GMs everywhere. And now they are heading to their first (of hopefully many) NBA Finals.
Tatum believes that coming up short in the past helped this group get over the hump this season.
“In the moment when you lose those series, obviously it hurts and it’s tough. But you never forget it,” Tatum said with the Larry Bird Eastern Conference Finals MVP trophy by his side. “I think that’s what we all have in common, that we’ve all been through those tough times and we remember how that felt. We didn’t want to have that feeling again leaving here tonight. We left it all out on the floor. Obviously we got it done.”
The Celtics went through adversity all season. They got off to a rocky start in Ime Udoka’s first months as a head coach. Injuries didn’t help, but with the team under .500 in December, there were cries to break up the core.
Instead of crumbling and demanding trades, the group came together. They learned to play together, and more importantly, they learned to win together. The victories racked up, and the Celtics went from being the 11th-place team in the East to the two-seed in a matter of months.
“I think all of those things helped, from saying that we need to split the group up, get rid of somebody or me and JB can’t play together, that fueled us to figure it out and not run from it,” said Tatum. “[It shows] that we trust in each other, and we had to be better. I think instead of separating, we became closer, and I think it’s shown throughout the season.”
“We were tested. We’ve been through a lot. We’ve learned a lot over the years, and now the stage is at its brightest, we’ve got to apply everything that we’ve learned into these moments,” said Brown.
Smart remembered the sting of all those previous defeats — losing Game 7 of the East Finals to the Cavs in 2018 and falling to the Heat in six games in the 2020 NBA bubble — and did not want to feel that again after Sunday’s Game 7.
“It’s huge for us. We’ve been through a lot; literally blood, sweat and tears. Every year we’ve been in this situation, and we had to sit there and look ourselves in the mirror, and it had to hurt, and it did,” he said. “For us, it was just we wanted to come out here and make sure that that didn’t happen again, and we did it.
“All the things we went through early on, the adversity, really allowed us to come here in Game 7 and do what we do,” Smart added. “I think our road record is better than our home record, and that just shows the resilience that we have. That we can come into somebody’s building and tear it up. That’s what it’s all about.”
The Celtics are an impressive 7-2 on the road this postseason, with two of those wins coming in elimination games. Now they’ll face a Warriors team that has yet to lose on their home floor during the playoffs.
This wouldn’t have happened if the doubters had their way. But the Celtics front office isn’t made up of doubters.
“This core group of guys, the guys that’s on the bench, this coaching staff, this whole organization, they trusted us, and they allowed us to fix it and work it out,” said Smart. “We’ve grown from it, and it’s definitely helped us in the long run.”
We can stop questioning the future of Boston basketball. It is indeed in good hands thanks to the trio of Tatum, Brown, and Smart and the leadership of Udoka.
There is still some heavy lifting ahead in the present. The Celtics now have to face off against the Golden State Warriors, who have won three of the last seven NBA crowns. The Celtics are not satisfied with being one of the two teams left standing this season; they want to be the last team to win a game.
Boston has answered the call every step of the way so far. They took down giants in the Nets, the Bucks, and the Heat, and will now have to slay one more if they want to raise another banner in Boston.
They celebrated Sunday because they knew that they accomplished something big, something special. It’s not easy to make it to the NBA Finals, and that deserves to be celebrated.
But that celebration ended quickly. Conference titles don’t mean much in Boston, and focus quickly shifted to slowing down Golden State. The Celtics aren’t satisfied just yet.
Tatum, Brown, and Smart had their moment on Sunday night, but now it’s time for them to have even bigger moments on the biggest stage in basketball.