The Boston Celtics held on for dear life against the relentless Miami Heat in Game 7 and survived.
Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart — the core of a team that had lost two previous chances together to win the Eastern Conference finals — combined for 74 points in a 100-96 victory to advance to the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. Boston won for the third time in four games in Miami.
“The road that we took to get here, not a lot of people believed in us,” Tatum said on the court after slaying Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Miami in successive rounds. “We took the toughest route, and it worked out.”
Tatum won the NBA’s first-ever Larry Bird Eastern Conference Finals MVP award after scoring 26 points in Sunday’s win-or-go-home game. Brown and Smart each added 24. The trio also combined for 25 rebounds and 17 assists. Al Horford grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked a pair of shots in a dominant defensive effort.
“We stayed with it. We believed in each other. We made a commitment on the defensive end,” Horford, who reached the Finals for the first time in 141 playoff games, said as he accepted his team’s trophy. “That was the biggest thing, defending, and that was going to be our identity — and that’s what’s carried us this far.”
Jimmy Butler scored 35 points, playing all 48 minutes for the Heat in defeat. Bam Adebayo added 25 points. Miami’s two bright stars shot 56% from the field. Their teammates had 36 points on 28% shooting.
Once the Celtics took a 98-85 lead with 3:35 remaining, the Heat rallied on an 11-0 run, and Butler saw a wide-open transition 3-point attempt that would have given them their first lead with 16 seconds left, but he fired it off the front rim. Smart connected on a pair of free throws on the other end to prevent a collapse.
The Celtics pushed the pace in the first quarter and played lockdown defense, taking a 32-17 advantage with …