The last time Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart were in a Game 7, they were up-and-coming youngsters on a 2018 Boston Celtics team that was full of potential going up against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Tatum even famously dunked on James in the fourth quarter of a losing effort — a small taste of his growth to come.
On Friday night against the Toronto Raptors, Tatum, Brown and Smart solidified that they are no longer up-and-coming. The trio combined for 66 points as the Boston Celtics eliminated the reigning champion Raptors, 92-87, to return to the conference finals for the third time in four years.
In a neck-and-neck series, all three players made crucial plays down the stretch. Brown had a momentum-shifting dunk. Tatum saved the game with an offensive rebound in the final minute. And Smart’s chase-down block — also in the final minute — surely will be in Celtics highlight reels for years to come.
“I’m first team all-defense for a reason,” Smart said after the game.
Is it possible to be young in age and old in experience? Tatum is 22. Brown is 23. Smart is 26. But they have now played seven playoff series together, not including the playoff games Smart and Brown had before Tatum entered the league. Sunday was the third Game 7 for the trio and the fourth for Brown and Smart.
“We have three 30-year-olds,” Coach Brad Stevens said, referring to Kemba Walker, Brad Wanamaker and Gordon Hayward. “We’re like basically a college team with a couple of guys.”
The young core looked poised down the stretch. They made just enough shots, grabbed just enough rebounds and stretched their arms just high enough to keep the Raptors from scoring when they needed to. For Toronto, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam looked out of sorts — especially when Lowry threw the ball into the backcourt for a turnover with about five minutes left. Siakam, who played poorly most of the series, finished with 13 points on 12 shots, while Lowry scored 16 points on 15 shots.
Even so, it took every bit of the Celtics talent to hold off the resilient Raptors. This was not a team keen on giving up its crown easily.
With 0.5 seconds left in Game 3 and Toronto down 2 points, the Raptors hit a 3-pointer to get back into the series. In Game 6, the Celtics led late in the fourth quarter, overtime and double overtime, yet Toronto still won. And in Game 7, even when the Celtics were up 10 points with less than five minutes left, the Raptors came back to within 2 in the final minute. It wasn’t even that surprising. That’s the kind of team Toronto was: You just assume they will come back.
“Both teams were really tired,” Stevens said. “Both teams laid it all out there. This has been a grueling series.”
And therein lies the cruelty of professional basketball: You live by the bounce and die by the bounce. Last year in a conference semifinal Game 7, the Raptors won by virtue of a fortuitous shot that rimmed in at the last second, beating the Philadelphia 76ers and effectively pushing the Sixers to drastically change their team. On Sunday, when the Raptors needed one more bounce, the plays went the other way.
“We had more to give,” Lowry told reporters. “But, you know, unfortunately, we’re not getting any more now.”
Toronto’s win last year followed by Friday’s elimination laid bare how rare championship runs are — and why it is imperative for the Celtics to take advantage of this opportunity. The league’s dynamics can shift on a dime, a result of player empowerment in free agency and unexpected trade requests.
If you are a glass-half-full type, then you are probably feeling bullish about the Celtics’ chances against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, which begin on Tuesday. After all, the Raptors were significantly better than Miami during the regular season. And Hayward is expected to return against Miami.
“We should definitely be hardened,” Stevens said. “We should definitely have a lot more in our toolbox to go back to, but we also have to get ready for a different, more unique team in Miami.”
And Walker — barring an injury — is a better player than he showed against Toronto, against whom he averaged 17 points and six assists on 42 percent shooting.
“These guys saved me all night,” Walker said, referring to his teammates.
But Boston fans are never the glass-half-full types (rather, they often ask, is there anything in the glass?). In that respect, the Celtics are still a work in progress.
For the first time since the late-2000s era of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the Celtics will be favored in the Eastern Conference finals.
Boston finished ahead of Miami in the regular season, beat opponents by more points and had a better offense and defense. Boston won two of the three games they played against one another, and probably has the best player on the floor in Tatum.
The Celtics have been here before. But now fans expect them to win, unlike in 2018, when Kyrie Irving and Hayward were injured, and James was the opponent. Or in 2017, when the Celtics made an unexpected run to the conference finals and lost Isaiah Thomas to injuries and to James once again in the series. Brown and Smart were on that 2017 team.
If the Celtics do not reach the finals, there might not be another opportunity as more teams drastically retool and the league shifts again.
That they put themselves in position to be the favored team in the conference finals was an unexpected 2020 twist to begin with — the Celtics were not expected to be here before the season started. Remember that last year — and yes, we realize last year feels like decades ago — Boston was unceremoniously dumped from the postseason in the second round by the Milwaukee Bucks. Then Irving, Al Horford and other key rotation players left the team.
The Celtics had to hit the reset button — just as Philadelphia did — with Walker as an Irving replacement, and a motley crew of various rookies. The Celtics quickly went from expected championship contenders to predicted mediocrity.
One of those rookies, the 21-year-old forward Grant Williams, drafted near the end of the first round, played essential minutes at the end of Game 7 on Sunday — and made a number of key plays to seal the win.
The youth movement has paid real dividends for the Celtics. The shoulders of Tatum, Brown and Smart collectively carried the franchise to one of the most momentous series wins for the Celtics in the last decade.
Now this young core will find out if it has another veteran performance in store.