It took every minute of a seven-game series, but the defending champions have relinquished their crown. The Boston Celtics defeated the Toronto Raptors, 92-87, in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series, pushing Boston into the final four and sending the Raptors home after an admirable title defense that few saw coming. Jayson Tatum led the way for Boston with 29 points, and Fred VanVleet was Toronto's leading scorer at 20.
The Celtics will now face the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, a matchup that looks familiar but includes almost none of the faces from their previous playoff duels. Udonis Haslem is the only player on either roster to take part in the last Eastern Conference finals matchup between these teams in 2012. So long, LeBron James and Paul Pierce, hello Tatum and Jimmy Butler.
The Raptors, owners of the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, head home on a sour note, but have to be happy with the season as a whole. Projected by many to struggle even to reach the playoffs after losing Kawhi Leonard, they came a few breaks short of the Eastern Conference finals. They will be back next season, but for now, the Celtics are the highest-seeded Eastern Conference team left in the field. Here are the biggest takeaways from Game 7.
Toronto's season ended exactly as we thought it would
When it became clear that the Raptors were going to finish with roughly the same regular season in 2020 as they did in 2019, skepticism moved toward the postseason. The Raptors had Kawhi Leonard a year ago. This time around, it would either have to be Pascal Siakam, or closer by committee. Teams without true one-on-one superstars rarely win deep into the playoffs. The Raptors tried to be the exception.
Instead, they followed the rule. The Celtics had two such stars. Jayson Tatum scored 29 points, including seven in the fourth quarter, and Kemba Walker had 21, including five in the fourth. Combined, they scored only four fewer fourth-quarter points than the entire Raptors team. Toronto, meanwhile, struggled to find much of anything offensively. Its final possession essentially boiled down to Fred VanVleet dribbling around aimlessly for 24 seconds, desperately trying and failing to shake Jaylen Brown. This shouldn't be your game-tying shot attempt.
VanVleet and Siakam are very valuable players. They just aren't the sort of players meant to be the best player on a championship team, and the Raptors never ultimately filled the vacuum that Kawhi left behind. That was their downfall. The Celtics had that kind of guy. The Raptors didn't.
Heart of a champion
The Raptors lost because they didn't have Kawhi, but the fact that they made it as far as they did without him is a testament to just how good the rest of this team really is. Toronto did almost nothing to replace its Finals MVP. It allocated his minutes and shots to existing pieces, and the results were better than anyone could have hoped for. The Raptors had a better regular-season winning percentage this season than they did last. They won a game on a 0.5-second buzzer-beater and another in double-overtime. They pushed a superior Celtics team to the absolute brink.
In other words, they comported themselves with the dignity of a defending champion despite losing the player that made them champions in the first place. This was a legitimate title defense, and the Raptors did everything in their power to hold onto the belt. They ultimately kept it longer than they had any right to, and while you don't hang banners for second-round losses, this is a season that everyone in the Raptors organization should be proud of. Kawhi's championship mojo rubbed off on them, and even with him gone, they're going to be in the mix for years to come.
The kids are alright
Yes, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown being the two leaders of a conference finalist for the second time in three years under the age of 24 is incredibly impressive, but we knew how good they are. Tonight's unsung heroes were the youngsters on the end of the bench.
Grant Williams and Robert Williams played only around 1,400 minutes combined this season. One is an actual rookie and the other, after playing only 32 games last season, is functionally one. But when starting center Daniel Theis found himself in foul trouble, the Celtics had a decision to make. They spent $5 million on Enes "can't play" Kanter this offseason, but as his nickname suggests, he struggles to stay on the floor in a postseason setting because of his struggles with perimeter defense. So Brad Stevens turned to the kids.
Robert Williams played 18 minutes, didn't miss a shot and pulled in six huge rebounds. Boston outscored Toronto by seven points in his time on the court. Grant Williams played only seven minutes, but they came with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. He turned out to be the rare rookie who could hold up defensively in such a big moment, helping create several crucial stops while grabbing two of the biggest rebounds of the game himself. The Celtics outscored the Raptors by a point with him on the floor. Combined, they played more than half of the game despite hardly contributing during the regular season.
No matter how much teams condense lineups in the playoffs, championship runs are always littered with games like this. Championship-caliber teams get one or two big games from unexpected sources. The Lakers have won their past three games on the strength of breakout performances by Markieff Morris, Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso. The Clippers needed two big Ivica Zubac games to close out Dallas. Now the Celtics are getting that kind of surprise production. It will serve them well as they pursue their 18th championship.