Celtics Are NBA Finals Bound After Unpredictable Season

MIAMI – The shot wasn’t in the air for more than a few seconds, but for the collection of green-clad players watching, it felt like an eternity. For three quarters the Celtics had fended off a relentless, never-ending Heat charge, battling as a 15-point first quarter lead was whittled to six at the end of the second, and as a 12-point edge with 3 ½ minutes to play was sliced to two. Now there they were, 17 seconds on the clock, up two, a trip to the Finals on the line and Jimmy Butler, the latest villain in Boston’s long history of them, was pulling up from three.

“I was hoping to God,” Jaylen Brown said, his voice trailing off. “It was nerve wracking,” Al Horford said. “He got a good look.”

He did. But whether it was the 48 minutes he played, the balky knee that has troubled him or the leprechaun that has seemingly attached itself to these Celtics since midseason, Butler’s shot came up short. Horford collected the rebound. Marcus Smart made a pair of free throws.

That’s right: The Celtics are headed to the NBA Finals. From the podium, Smart allowed it all to soak in. Smart is the longest-tenured Celtic. He’s not the captain—Ime Udoka declined to name one this season—but he might as well be. This was Smart’s fourth trip to the conference finals.

He has been the understudy to Isaiah Thomas, backup to Kyrie Irving, defensive replacement for Kemba Walker. He has been the subject of countless trade rumors and bore his share of the blame whenever things fell apart. As he sat there, a gray NBA Finals hat covering his green-streaked hair, Smart could only marvel at the journey. “We’ve been through a lot together,” Smart said.

Smart was referring to the past, about the three previous failed trips to the conference finals, about last year’s .500 record, about a team that for so long seemed destined to be broken up. Visions of Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis once danced in the heads of Boston’s front office execs, but it’s the Celtics’ young core of Smart, Brown and Jayson Tatum that pushed this team through a horrific early season start and is now one series away from delivering the franchise’s 18th championship.

“The core group of guys, the guys on the bench, this coaching staff, this whole organization, they trusted us,” Smart said. “They allowed us to fix it and work it out.”

That includes Ime Udoka. Udoka’s hire last spring drew widespread praise in NBA circles. By late December, it looked like a disaster. The Celtics were hovering around .500. Udoka, a first-time head coach, looked to be in over his head. He publicly tattooed his team after bad losses. The man that who spent years coaching under Gregg Popovich seemed to think he was him.

He appeared at risk of losing the locker room. Instead, he united it. “[He] embodies everything that we embody,” Smart said. “He kind of puts it on you to let you know that, hey, I’m not taking no slack. And if you don’t like it, you can get up out of here.”

Horford wanted to be there. Horford ended his first run in Boston in 2019, snatching a $109 million offer from the 76ers. His first season in Philadelphia, though, proved to be a poor fit. He was shipped to Oklahoma City in 2020, forced to spend a season in basketball purgatory. That season revitalized him, mentally and physically.

He embraced a trade back to Boston last summer and quickly became a key part of Boston’s frontcourt. Horford scored just five points in Game 7. But he chipped in 14 rebounds and anchored a defense that held Miami to 42% shooting. “It’s incredible what he has done all season,” said Udoka.