The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

By weathering the Heat, the young Celtics show how much they’ve grown

Heat center Bam Adebayo congratulates Celtics forward Jayson Tatum on Sunday night. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

MIAMI — At times, they made it look ugly. Bad shot attempts, wild drives ending in offensive fouls, a game that could be admired only by defensive enthusiasts — that’s how Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the rest of the Boston Celtics played and prevailed in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Tatum and Brown were born in the 1990s, and maybe they have an affinity for that era of basketball. By throwing their bodies around, they mucked up the game to the point that not even the defensive-minded Miami Heat could survive. They held their breath when Jimmy Butler showed all his chutzpah and tried to win the game on his own. Ultimately, his last shot clanked off the rim — like a ton of shots on this night. A short while later, the Celtics would spill onto Miami’s home floor in celebration of their 100-96 win and their trip to the NBA Finals, where they will face the Golden State Warriors.

It wasn’t pretty, with Tatum needing 21 shots to score a team-best 26 points and Brown adding 24 but also four turnovers. But all Boston will see is beauty in the process.

“It feels great, honestly, to get over this hump and in the fashion that we did,” Tatum said. “Obviously we took the toughest route possible. To win a Game 7 and go to the championship, on the road, is special.”

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The growth of Tatum and Brown mirrors that of other young teams that have advanced to the Finals. The 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder had a baby-faced Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and James Harden, whose humble beard at the time didn’t require its own Zip code. The 1995 Orlando Magic had 23-year-old Penny Hardaway in his second year and 22-year-old Shaquille O’Neal in his third. And for the pre-modern game, the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers had 10 players who were 25 or younger. Those Blazers still reign as the youngest team to win an NBA title.

Tatum, at 24, and Brown, just a year older, have led the Celtics to the Finals. The way their era began in Boston, it would have been hard to imagine the duo getting this far.

On June 23, 2016, when the Celtics selected Brown with the No. 3 pick, many of those at TD Garden attending a draft party booed and then let Wyc Grousbeck, one of the team’s governors, have it when he came out to say a few words.

“Fourteen years, that’s probably the worst [reaction] I’ve gotten,” he said that night, according to ESPN.

Maybe Celtics fans were holding out for Dragan Bender — the player who was drafted next but hasn’t appeared in an NBA game since 2020. Brown was an all-star in 2021.

Then, the summer after the Brown pick, then-Celtics president Danny Ainge made the mercurial move to trade the No. 1 choice to Philadelphia. That pick would become Markelle Fultz; the Celtics again selected third and found their man in Tatum. And in hindsight, the move again makes Ainge look like a savant.

Fultz’s challenges, which have been well documented, eventually led him out of Philadelphia. Tatum has ascended to first-team all-NBA status.

There are other factors behind Boston’s rise to the top of the East. When Ainge stepped away last year, coach Brad Stevens moved into the president’s office. He brought in Ime Udoka, a basketball lifer who’s unafraid of coaching and calling out his stars, as he did after Game 1 of this series.

“It was our veterans, Jayson and Jaylen, who let it get away from us,” he said.

Then there’s Marcus Smart, the longest-tenured Celtic, who has grown in his role as a defensive and emotional leader. In Game 7, his scoring proved just as critical as his perimeter defense. Robert Williams III, the lob-catching and paint-protecting big man, has dealt with knee issues that have limited him throughout the playoffs. But when he is healthy, he’s the one who elevates Boston’s physical defense into elite territory. Even without Williams, the Celtics can depend on Al Horford or tweener Grant Williams; both are capable of taking on tricky defensive assignments.

Smart finished with 24 points and nine rebounds Sunday, and Horford grabbed 14 boards.

After Game 6, when these Celtics walked off their home court, defeated by Butler but doomed by their many mistakes, there was a palatable sense of the night being a wasted opportunity. It was heard through the exiting fans, who vocalized their displeasure in the most Boston ways imaginable. A local television personality yelled an expletive while leaving the media section. When former Celtics player Cedric Maxwell, who provides color commentary on the radio, wrapped up the broadcast, he turned and spotted Jason Jackson, who does radio for the Heat.

“Damn it, Jax!” Maxwell hollered, shaking his head.

Whatever anxiety and unease the fan base felt Friday, it didn’t stop many of them from invading FTX Arena two nights later. While the Heat encourages its fans to wear white in the playoffs, on Sunday, like blades of grass, Celtics fans dotted the stands.

And whatever letdown the players felt, they had to leave it in Boston. On Sunday, Udoka called off the usual morning shoot-around and made it optional for players to get up shots — all in hopes of having extra energy and fresh legs. Although the Celtics eschewed routine, coming into Game 7, Udoka felt their confidence remained as high as if they had been here before — because they have.

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“Confident as usual but understanding what works for us and what doesn’t. So that’s been the theme throughout the playoffs, throughout the season, and it doesn’t change because it’s a Game 7,” Udoka said. “We faced two elimination games in the last series.”

In the first quarter Sunday, the Celtics made Game 6 look like a distant memory. Their celebrated defense showed up with signature plays, such as Horford stealing P.J. Tucker’s pass on Miami’s second possession and feeding Brown for a fast-break layup. Later, Horford stuffed Max Strus on a dunk attempt, which led to Grant Williams’s bucket on the other end for a 22-9 lead.

From there, Boston opened a 15-point advantage and Miami needed help — or, better yet, a Herro.

Tyler Herro, who won the sixth man of the year award, had not played in the previous three games because of a strain in his left groin. The Heat spent the first two games without him struggling to find offensive rhythm but had no such problem in Game 6 because Butler transformed into the human embodiment of the “Fine, I’ll do it myself” meme. Thanos — disguised as Butler — went off for a playoff career high of 47 points and willed the Heat to this moment. It set up a fitting conclusion to a lopsided yet evenly matched series between the East’s best teams.

But on this night, with this early deficit, the Heat would need more than the comic-book strength of their superhero.

“It’s all hands on deck,” Coach Erik Spoelstra said before the game in explaining the decision behind Herro’s return. “He passed his testing with the trainers. He’s really been working diligently the last few days.”

Herro didn’t make an impact. He entered in the second quarter, missed his first three-point attempt and finished his run scoreless in seven minutes. Butler did find help in teammates Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry, but Miami played from behind most of the night, and when it mattered most, he was left carrying all the weight.

Early in the fourth quarter, with less than 11 minutes to play, Butler cut the Celtics’ lead to 82-79. But the momentum ended there; Miami went scoreless over the next four minutes. During that stretch, Tatum made a pair of free throws then set up Grant Williams cutting to the rim. Tatum knocked down a midrange jumper, then hit a three in front of courtside fans.

Then the Celtics needed defense — and luck — to survive a late Heat surge. When Butler missed a pull-up three that would have given Miami the lead with 16.6 seconds remaining, Brown grabbed the rebound.

“When he shot that, I was like, ‘Man, what the hell?’ ” Brown said. “But he missed. We get the rebound and move on.”

Horford would be the first to touch the conference trophy. He needed 141 playoff games over his 15-year career to get to that moment. Tatum would loft the first Eastern Conference finals MVP award, named after Celtics great Larry Bird. And Boston, with its young stars, would start preparing for its next growth spurt, which begins Thursday night in San Francisco.

“These guys, I seen JB come in the league, take steps, take levels. I seen JT the same thing. I seen Smart grow,” Horford said. “For me, it’s just special to be with them and be able to help them and be a part of this.”

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