Celtics advance to NBA Finals, face big challenge for Warriors

The Celtics have reached the NBA Finals and are playing against the Warriors after starting the 18-21 season and in 11th place in the Eastern Conference.


MIAMI — Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum of Boston had been to these moments before — playing in the Eastern Conference Finals with a trip to the NBA Finals so close. But they came up short.

There was even talk that maybe the Celtics should break up the Brown-Tatum tandem, and the rumblings of whether the Celtics could win a title — well, even make the playoffs — got louder when they were 18-21 and on the 11th. place in the Eastern Conference on January 6.

“It was tough, really,” Tatum said. “There were definitely some tough moments throughout the season where – no doubt yourself, but maybe the question is, 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 and the Celtics answered those questions with a 100-96 win against the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday.

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Boston will face the Golden State Warriors for the championship, starting with Game 1 Thursday in San Francisco (9 p.m. ET, ABC).

Tatum was declared the winner of the first Larry Bird Trophy awarded to the MVP of the East Finals. He averaged 25 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.6 assists and shot 46.2% of the field.

“It’s an honor,” said 24-year-old Tatum. “It doesn’t even seem real right now. I’m just incredibly happy and grateful for all of this. No matter how long I’ve been in the league, I’m not far from when I was in high school and dreamed of moments like this.”

Players who play head coach Ime Udoka and Boston for the first time will say that this season hasn’t been easy, and there’s truth in that.

“To get to this point, we had to flip the switch and flip in a lot of ways, and guys were always receptive to being coached hard, to being pushed, to being asked to do more,” Udoka said. “And that shows the character of being pushed to grow and take the next step. They’ve all been here and getting the championship is of course the next step, but our focus is on four more.”

In a remarkable turnaround with the Celtics finishing the final three months of the season 33-10, then winning Brooklyn in the first round, knocking out the 2021 champion Milwaukee Bucks in seven games in the conference semifinals and then Miami on the away in Game 7 of the conference finals they are back in the finals for the first time since 2010.

It is a breakthrough years in the making with major design choices (Brown and Tatum), significant roster changes (Kyrie Irving came in and Kyrie Irving left), a coaching change (Udoka for Brad Stevens) and a front office change (Stevens for Danny Ainge).

“Ime did a great job this year, building on what they’ve done over the past six, seven years,” said Celtics coach Erik Spoelstra. “And they probably did it the way it’s supposed to be done in this competition. You build a team and you have frustrating losses. You stick together, keep your core together, keep your culture together, and then you eventually find a breakthrough.

“They went through the fire and earned that right to go to the final.”

Even Sunday’s win came with effort and tension. Boston lost a 17-point lead in the first half and a 13-point lead at the end of the fourth quarter turned into a 98-96 advantage that almost disappeared on a Jimmy Butler try of 3 points with 16.6 seconds left to go.

“Tonight seemed to be a bit typical of our season,” Udoka said.

This was Boston’s fourth trip to the conference finals in the past six seasons. Their path to the conference finals is reminiscent of those old-school Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls teams in the 1980s and 1990s that suffered devastating playoffs before winning a conference title and then the NBA championship.

Udoka established a defensive mindset and the Celtics finished the season with the #1-rated defense. He wanted versatile defenders who could guard the perimeter, guard multiple positions, switch as needed, and have big men who can protect the paint.

He designed an attack around Tatum and Brown – who both averaged more than 22 points in the regular season and the playoffs – while using role players. It took Tatum and Brown time to trust and rely on the pass. As a result, they occasionally ran into problems with turnovers, but they improved as the season progressed.

“Coach Udoka was very clear what he wanted us to be as a team, our identity, defensively, our hats on the defensive end,” said veteran Al Horford. “And on offense, play free, use Jaylen and Jayson and just go. And we understand that and believe in that. It took a while, but I feel like once we started to understand how to play, we became more consistent .”

Tatum hung his head after the Celtics squandered a 25-point lead against the Knicks on January 6, losing 108-105. “That was the lowest moment for me,” he said. “But I think things started to turn shortly after that.”

Horford noticed the change in February. At the beginning of March, the Celtics were in fifth place and by the end of March they were just a game away from first place.

And now the Celtics face their biggest challenge: beating Golden State four times.

“I think it’s good to enjoy this tonight and be happy because it’s hard,” Tatum said. “It’s not easy, it’s clear that this is my first time in the championship.

“We know we have a tough job ahead of us. They’ve been there many times, they’ve won many times. I look forward.”

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