The Boston Celtics are heading back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010 after beating the Miami Heat on the road 100-96 in Game 7 Sunday night. Jayson Tatum led the way with 26 points, and Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart added on 24 points apiece as the Celtics move on to play the Golden State Warriors for the championship, beginning with Game 1 Thursday in San Francisco.
The Celtics led wire-to-wire, and responded every time the Heat went on a run. Miami went on a late run and cut the deficit to two points, but Boston managed to hang on for the win. Jimmy Butler did most of the offensive work for Miami, finishing with 35 points while playing the entire game. But Butler alone couldn't get it done for the No. 1-seeded Heat.
With Boston's win, Ime Udoka becomes the first rookie head coach in NBA history to win multiple Game 7s; Boston beat the Bucks 109-81 in Game 7 earlier in the East semis.
Here's three takeaways from Boston's win over Miami in Game 7.
1. Tatum, and Brown and Smart, oh my
Tatum and Brown live for Game 7s. You don't believe me? Here's a stat that will blow your mind. With the win Sunday night, Tatum now improves to a 4-1 record in Game 7s, while Brown is now at a 5-1 record in Game 7s. So it's safe to say those guys shine when the lights are the brightest. Tonight was no different, as Brown and Tatum combined for 50 points. Throw in Smart's 24 points and it's pretty easy to see why the Celtics won this game. From the opening tip you could tell that the Celtics wanted to come out aggressive, and while the Heat gave Boston a scare in the final minutes of the game, it was because of the performances of Tatum, Brown and Smart that gave the C's the win.
It's the exact type of performance you want out of your key players in a win-or-go-home contest, and the stars were out for Boston on the road. But it wasn't just the scoring that was impressive from all three players. It was the defense of Smart and Brown on Butler to not bite on his pump fake and limit the contributions of everyone else on the Heat. It was Tatum's playmaking, a much-improved skill we've seen from him this season, that led to open 3s in the corners for Boston. You could see all the improvements these core guys have been working on over the years paying off in the biggest game of their careers tonight, and it just so happened to lead to a spot in the NBA Finals.
2. Jimmy vs. everybody
Butler played the full 48 minutes, and he put his all into his performance to try and will the Heat to a win. I feel like Butler playing the full game will probably go overlooked, but I don't think there's very many players in this league who could do what he did tonight. What's even crazier, he made it look easy. Butler looked just as spry in the closing minutes of the game as he did at opening tip, and to put the cherry on top of this crazy sundae he's been dealing with a nagging knee injury as well.
Butler was masterful in his Game 7 performance. He got to the free-throw line essentially whenever he wanted to, as Boston struggled to contain him for the second straight game. He was hustling for rebounds, loose balls and playing the very Jimmy Butler brand of basketball the entire night without a single break longer than a timeout.
Unfortunately, Butler's performance wasn't enough as he got minimal help outside of Bam Adebayo's 25 points. Lowry tacked on 15 points as well, but it really felt like the Butler show tonight, and that's ultimately the reason the Heat lost the game. That's not entirely surprising, given Miami has gradually cooled off over the course of this series, and when Tyler Herro tries to make a comeback after missing three games and only plays six minutes, you're kind of at a disadvantage already. Herro aside, Max Strus' shooting struggles continued as well, and while he did knock down a crucial 3-pointer at the tail end of the game to cut Boston's lead down to just a two-point lead, he ended the night going 2 for 7 on 3-pointers.
3. Al Horford will finally get a shot at a title
Horford held the record for most playoff games (141) played without reaching the NBA Finals. But with Boston's win tonight that streak has been snapped and the veteran forward will have his first shot at a championship. Horford's made the playoffs 13 times out of his 15-year career, and has reached the conference finals three times -- once with Atlanta and twice with Boston -- prior to this but has fallen short every time. But after years of not reaching that point, Horford will have his first, and perhaps best shot at a ring.
Although the Celtics will be facing the Warriors who open as favorites to win it all, this isn't the same Golden State team from a few years ago that were straight up embarrassing teams on a nightly basis. While the Warriors made quick work of the Dallas Mavericks in the West finals, the Celtics will present a far tougher matchup for the Warriors in the Finals. Horford will play a crucial role in trying to make life difficult for the Warriors on defense, and if he keeps knocking down 3s at a high clip like he has been all postseason long (45.6 percent), then it'll put Boston in a good spot to try and win a title for the first time since 2008.