SportsPulse: The Celtics outlasted the defending champion Raptors and will now face the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt breaks down what to expect from the series.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — A few weeks ago, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick spoke to the Boston Celtics and said “history and experience are meaningless. It’s how you play in this minute,” according to Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
“And I think that’s right,” Stevens said.
In the 48 minutes played in Friday night’s Game 7 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series between Toronto and Boston, the Celtics played better in the final 12 minutes, earning a 92-87 victory in another exhausting game.
“Tough to lose a game like that,” Toronto star Kyle Lowry said. “You’d rather get blown out. We were right there.”
Boston’s Grant Williams missed two foul shots with 35.4 seconds left, but Jayson Tatum grabbed the offensive rebound on the second miss and was fouled. He made 1-of-2, giving the Celtics a 90-87 lead.
Toronto’s Fred VanVleet launched a difficult 3-pointer with 12 seconds left, and Kemba Walker sealed the victory and the series with two more free throws.
Boston’s Marcus Smart made the defensive play of the game, blocking Norman Powell’s fastbreak layup attempt with 58.2 seconds remaining. Had he made it, Toronto would’ve tied the score at 89-all.
Stevens called the Smart block and Tatum’s offensive rebound the two biggest plays of the game.
“Those were incredible effort plays by two of our best players,” Stevens said.
The Celtics will play the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, a series that is expected to begin Tuesday. Boston advances to the conference finals for the third time in four seasons, but they have not reached the NBA Finals under Stevens.
“We’re lucky to move on against a really special Toronto team and organization. … Both teams were really tired,” Stevens said. :But we were winning and had enough stops to win the game. Both teams laid it out there. This has been a grueling series.”
Tatum led the Celtics with 29 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists, and Jaylen Brown had 21 points, eight rebounds and four steals.
Boston’s Kemba Walker had another off night offensively, as the Raptors focused much of their defense on limiting him. Just 5-of-16 from the field, Walker’s 3-point play with 6:05 left in the game put the Celtics ahead 85-78.
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Over the course of the seven-game series, the Celtics had just enough scoring and plenty of defense to eliminate the defending champions.
It was simply an entertaining series defined by two hard-working teams that made scoring difficult. The Celtics shot 40.7% from the field and 23.7% on 3-pointers, and the Raptors shot 41.3% and 28.6%.
“If you want to achieve something great, if you want to win, it’s not going to be easy,” Tatum said.
Toronto’s VanVleet had 20 points and six assists, and Kyle Lowry finished with 16 points, six rebounds and four assists.
Raptors All-Star Pascal Siakam had a double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds), but his struggles in Game 7 (five turnovers) were emblematic of his struggles in the series. Whether it was the long layoff or being the focal point of another team’s defensive gameplan, Siakam never found his offense against the Celtics.
Siakam averaged just 14.9 points and shot 38.2% from the field, including 12.5% on 3-pointers. He said he shoulders a lot of the blame for Toronto’s series loss.
“For myself, when we got swept by the Wizards, I read every single article,” Lowry said. “I read every single thing that was said about me — good, bad, evil, terrible, awesome — and I used it as motivation. That’s what he’s going to do, and that’s the advice I’d give him.”
Turnovers hurt the Raptors. They had 10 in the first half and ended up with 18, leading to 31 Celtics points.
“We were a little bit too fast, trying to make decisions and a little too indecisive in our decision making. That killed us,” Lowry said of the turnovers. “We were really tentative in some of the things we should be doing.”
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.