Celtics hang on against relentless Butler, Heat; win Game 7 to advance to NBA Finals

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The Boston Celtics never trailed in Game 7, led by as many as 17, and they are headed to the NBA Finals.

But — in a manner fitting Boston’s season — it was never easy.

Boston raced out to a 24-9 lead, but Miami always hung around. That’s because for more than three quarters, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo muscled the Heat into the game without much help around them. Jayson Tatum and the Celtics attacked with ball movement and balance; the Heat were brute force.

Echoing his Game 6 performance, Butler was the best player on the court — finishing with 35 points — and the Heat were getting their buckets in the paint because of Butler and Adebayo’s physicality. Butler played the full 48 minutes and unsurprisingly his legs looked spent — in the middle of the fourth quarter the Celtics went on an 8-0 run as the Heat missed nine shots row. Boston led by double digits and was in control.

And then suddenly they weren’t. Miami went on an 11-0 run late, with Max Strus making it a two-point game.

Then Butler had a chance to tie or win it — and on brand he went for the win. His legs just weren’t there.

Behind an elite defense, and a strong game with some key fourth quarter minutes from Tatum, who scored 26, the Celtics hung on to beat the Heat 100-96.

Boston advances to the NBA Finals, where they will face the Golden State Warriors starting Thursday, June 2, in San Francisco.

It was not a performance that struck fear in the hearts of Stephen Curry and his teammates — the Celtics kept building leads then losing them — but it was enough to get to play for a title. Boston is back on the NBA’s biggest stage for the first time since 2010.

Jayson Tatum won the first ever Larry Bird Trophy for the Eastern Conference Finals MVP — and his play in the clutch cemented him as one of the elite players in the NBA. He had help in Game 7, with Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart adding 24 apiece. This game had everything Celtics fans love and hate about Smart in one night, from the defense and hustle to shots everyone knows he shouldn’t take but does anyway. However, he was engaged and what the Celtics needed.

That was the difference in the game — Heat players besides Butler and Adebayo shot 12-of-43 (27.9%) and as a team Miami shot 20% from 3. There was a lot of attacking in isolation and a limited amount of ball movement and passing. It should have made the Heat easier to defend, but Butler kept finding a way to make plays and get buckets.

It just wasn’t enough.

Boston was celebrating. They were toasting the turnaround of a team that, back on Christmas, was below .500 and had people calling to break up Tatum and Brown. They were celebrating Al Horford going to his first Finals after 141 playoff games — he is deserving.

Now Boston goes after a record banner No. 18 — but they earned a night to celebrate this, first.