BOSTON — These Celtics didn’t make it easy. They never do. Such is the affliction of youth.
But here’s another thing about youth: You never know what wonders they’re capable of.
Entering the Eastern Conference semifinals, much was made of Philadelphia’s vaunted superstars in the making. So much so that the 76ers were Vegas favorites for the series and each of the five games against the undermanned second-seeded Celtics. This was the NBA’s team of the future — Ben Simmons the next Magic Johnson, Joel Embiid the next Hakeem Olajuwon.
Only, the Celtics were hungrier. They were better. And, oh by the way, they were younger, too. The result was a wild 114-112 Game 5 win in which they erased a four-point deficit with 97 seconds left — the third time they snatched victory from defeat’s jaws in the series — to send the Sixers home and advance to the conference finals against LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
“After Gordon got hurt and Kyrie and Smart went down and Theis, nobody expected us to go to the Eastern Conference finals,” said Jayson Tatum, who conceded he was one of them. “So, we’ll just continue to prove people wrong and have fun while we’re doing it.”
Before the game, Tatum looked every bit a veteran. He drew fake fouls from security guards as he rained 3’s from the corner, and then held court with a growing amount of interested media at his locker. Simmons, meanwhile, worked on his erratic jumper on the other end of the court before nervously clapping in a “too quiet” locker room. One was smooth, the other distressed.
Simmons will win Rookie of the Year, but Tatum summarily outperformed him in their first playoff meeting, playing with poise belying his 20 years. Entering the series, pundits wondered when Simmons would take the NBA’s alpha dog mantle from LeBron, but we exited the second round with a different question. Who would you rather have on your team now: Tatum or Simmons?
This is the beauty of a new rivalry. So many unanswered questions, and the C’s aced the first test. Tatum scored 10 of his team-high 25 points in the fourth quarter, culminating in a brilliant backdoor cut that left Simmons lost and gave the Celtics a 111-109 lead with 22 seconds left.
Tatum became the first Celtics player since Paul Pierce in 2005 to eclipse 20 points in seven straight playoff games, joining Utah’s Donovan Mitchell as the only NBA rookies to hit that mark since Julius Erving. Even when Tatum looked his age, missing a wide-open layup that would have tied the game inside a minute, Marcus Smart was there to clean it up. He always is.
“I tipped that bitch in,” Smart told Tatum in the locker room afterwards.
“You saved my ass,” returned Tatum.
No man left behind.
“No matter what people have predicted you will be, play at a togetherness and a toughness level that is OK in this town,” said C’s coach Brad Stevens. “That’s really important. Our guys embrace that. I always hoped we would get to the point where if things don’t go our way, we’re still extremely competitive because we have a foundation in place. That’s not a given. Things haven’t always gone our way, but these guys are really talented, they’re really tough, and they fit Boston.”
These are the never-say-die Celtics, rebuilt from last year’s conference finalist, but with Smart laying the same grit as the foundation. The final 2.4 seconds, once J.J. Redick drew the Sixers within 114-113 with a 3, were quintessential Marcus Smart. He missed his first free throw, tried to miss the second only to make it, and then picked off Simmons’ full-court entry pass to seal it.
“He’s made for this,” said Stevens. “Like, he’s made for these moments. … We can go through a stat line all you want, but when your season is on the line and when you’re in the playoffs and when you’ve got to do really hard things, he can do really hard things.”
That stat line, by the way: 14 points, six rebounds, six assists, two steals and a team-high plus-10.
There were three other holdovers from the last embattled Celtics squad to scrap its way to a conference finals: Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and Terry Rozier. Brown scored 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting and a sore hamstring, including a third-quarter flurry that had Philly on the ropes. Embiid committed a technical, Simmons got benched, but the Sixers didn’t quit, either.
Every time they got off the mat, though, Horford threw a counter. He scored 15 points, all monumental, especially the alley-oop from Tatum that drew the C’s within 109-107 with 1:27 left.
Horford added eight rebounds, five steals and three assists. He was, quite simply, the best player in the series — a Swiss Army knife who defended both Simmons and Embiid. A point guard and center. Both massive. Both a handful. Every penny they pay Horford, he’s earned.
“I thought Miami was more physical, but the talent wasn’t there like Boston has,” said Embiid, which is really saying something, since they’re missing All-Stars Irving and Hayward. “They have a lot of great young talent, and you’ve got Al Horford. He did an amazing job this series. Gotta give him a lot of credit. Then, guys like Marcus Morris. They were all excellent.”
That’s precisely what this team is. The brute force of two Marcuses behind Horford’s steady hand and a trio of young stars whose ceiling elevates every night. We’ve covered Tatum and Brown, which brings us to Terry Rozier, the breakout star of these playoffs — the man whose feud with the Bucks brought Drew Bledsoe back to Boston for Game 5. The former Patriots quarterback whipped the crowd into a frenzy with a Jumbotron appearance in a No. 12 jersey.
Another feud fueled Rozier in the final seconds. One game removed from a dustup with Embiid, Rozier exacted revenge. Embiid had his chances down 111-109, but before his second attempt to tie the game, Rozier stripped the ball off his foot and out of bounds. He took an ensuing inbound pass and knocked down his free throws to push the C’s lead to four with 10 seconds left.
Bledsoe, who runs a winery now, said he’s going to make Terry Rosé “with a great finish.”
In the locker room after the game, several Celtics sounded annoyed by Embiid walking off the floor without paying respect, especially after he talked so much trash. “At least man up,” one player said. Asked afterward if stripping Embiid made it any sweeter, Rozier wouldn’t take the bait. Instead, he smiled and said, “I’m going to back-to-back Eastern Conference finals baby.”
It won’t get easier this time around. LeBron awaits again with an NBA Finals appearance on the line, and the Celtics are sure to be underdogs. But the wonders of these young C’s never cease.