Celtics advance to conference final for 3rd time in 4 years

With just under a minute remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 7 and the Celtics clinging to a two-point lead, Raptors guard Norman Powell had the ball on a fast break with only one man to beat. Unfortunately for Powell, that man’s name was Marcus Smart.

Three days after being named to the NBA’s All-Defensive team, Smart made perhaps the greatest defensive play of his career. After crossing from his right to his left hand just outside the 3-point line, Powell drove hard toward the hoop. Smart, unfazed by his opponent’s slight change of direction, stalked him to the rim. As Powell jumped to lay the ball in, Smart elevated behind him and blocked the ball hard off the backboard, preserving the Celtics’ lead. Boston went on to win 92–87.

Smart’s game-saving block is just another example of the passionate, high energy and balls-to-the-wall play that has endeared him to his teammates and Celtics fans.

“The hustle. The block. The toughness. He had a couple of loose balls, he almost came up with another couple of rebounds towards the end of the game,” coach Brad Stevens said in a press conference after the game. “He’s a huge part of our team, he’s a huge part of our organization. I said this before the playoffs, we’ve gotten a chance to play in [the playoffs] every year he’s been here and it’s not a coincidence.”

The low-scoring total was a fitting end to a grueling seven-game series between two of the NBA’s best defensive teams. It was the Celtics’ two young stars, 22-year-old Jayson Tatum and 23-year-old Jaylen Brown, who were able to break through enough offensively for Boston to hold off Toronto. Tatum scored 29 points and finished with seven assists, repeatedly showing off one of the smoothest strokes in the game. Brown shot only one for seven from the 3-point line but was deadly in the paint area, scoring 18 points on nine out of 10 shooting inside the arc. 

Thanks to the contributions of Tatum and Brown, the Celtics were able to survive another quiet night from star point guard Kemba Walker (14 points, five out of 16 from the field). Walker acknowledged his subpar offensive output in his post-game press conference, while crediting his teammates for keeping him engaged.

“I struggled last game, I struggled this game, but it wasn’t no quit in me. My teammates, they encouraged me so, so much tonight. They made me keep my head high,” Walker said. “And you know, much credit to those guys, I could have easily got down on myself, but they wouldn’t let me. And they held me down. That’s what a team is for.” 

The Celtics offense may receive a boost in the Eastern Conference finals as forward Gordon Hayward, who averaged 17.5 points per game in the regular season, is set to return from an ankle sprain suffered in the Celtics’ first-round series against the 76ers.  

The Celtics Game 7 victory ends the defending champion Toronto Raptors’ quest for a repeat. After losing their best player and finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to free agency last summer, the Raptors exceeded expectations this season by winning 53 games en route to the two seed. Toronto’s front office has some decisions to make this offseason as key players Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol will all be free agents.

The Celtics will begin the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat on Tuesday. The last time the two teams met in the conference finals was in 2012 when Lebron James and Dwyane Wade led the Heat to a Game 7 victory over a Celtics team led by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. With the Bucks and Raptors eliminated, this will be the first-ever Eastern Conference final without a one or two seed.