MIAMI – For the collection of green-clad players watching, the shot was in the air for very short periods of time. The Celtics had held off a relentless Heat charge for three quarters, reducing a 15-point lead at the end of the first quarter to six by the end of the second quarter, and a 12-point advantage with 3 12 minutes left to just two. It was now with 17 seconds on the clock, Boston was up two, and Jimmy Butler, the latest villain in a long history of them, was pulling up from three.
Jaylen Brown’s voice trailed off as he said, “I was hoping to God.”
Al Horford described the experience as nerve-wracking. “He got a good look at him.”
Yes, he did. Butler’s shot came up short, whether the reason was the 48 minutes he played, his balky knee, or the leprechaun that has been loitering in the Celtics’ locker room since midseason. The ball was rebounded by Horford. Marc Smart made a pair of free throws.
You read that right: The Celtics are headed to the NBA Finals. It all sank in for Smart from the podium. Smart is Celtic’s longest serving player. This season, Ime Udoka declined to name a captain, but he may as well be. Smart was making his fourth appearance in the conference finals. He has been Isaiah Thomas’ understudy, Kyrie Irving’s backup, and Kemba Walker’s defensive replacement. There have been countless trade rumors about him, and he has often been blamed when things go wrong. Smart could only marvel at his journey as he sat there, his gray NBA Finals hat covering his green hair.
I know we’ve been through a lot together, Smart said.
He included Ime Udoka in that. NBA officials praised Udoka for his hiring last spring. The situation looked hopeless by late December. A .500 record seemed out of reach. Odoka, a first-time head coach, seemed overwhelmed. When the team suffered a loss, he tattooed them publicly. He thinks he is Gregg Popovich, having spent years coaching under him.
His locker room position appeared to be in jeopardy.
However, he managed to unite it.
After the game, Horford reflected on his journey as the first Dominican player to play in the Finals. His three failures in the playoffs in Atlanta, Boston, and Philadelphia have finally brought him to this point. Horford recently found himself scrolling through old photos from his Thunder season just ended a year ago. His son graduated from kindergarten in those photos. He photographed his family celebrating with cupcakes after his son graduated. For Horford, it’s like gaining some perspective. My family and I are very grateful to have the opportunity to work with these people.”
Golden State awaits Boston, and the Celtics can win this matchup. It took Boston four points to defeat the Warriors during the dark days of December before destroying Golden State by 22 on the road in March. The Celtics’ physical, switching defense caused problems for the Celtics in that game, and should again this series. However, the Warriors are an experienced Finals team. The rotation players for Boston have never been to a Finals before.
“It would all be for nothing if we went into the Finals and laid an egg,” Udoka said. He added, “We know that.” When the celebrations ended, the guys turned the page and proclaimed, “We’ve got four more to go.” Eastern Conference championships are not celebrated by the Celtics organization.”
Indeed. It is a great accomplishment that they now have one. This team, which appeared to be lottery-bound in December, will now compete for a championship. Few things can seem more unlikely than that during a wild, unpredictable NBA season.