It certainly didn’t come easy, but after a long, tough series, the Boston Celtics put an end to the Toronto Raptors’ season. Last Friday, they triumphed in a hard-fought Game 7, 92-87, setting up a showdown with the upstart Miami Heat — who dispatched the top-seeded Bucks in five games — in the Eastern Conference Finals.
But while the third round itself may be familiar ground for Stevens and the Celtics, who have appeared in the ECF three times in the past four seasons, this time, they enter in an unfamiliar role: the favorite. This is the first time their appearance doesn’t feel unlikely to some extent. Stevens’ Celtics teams have seldom ever been bad, missing the playoffs only once in his seven year tenure. Yet his teams almost always carried the “scrappy underdog” title, starting with a surprise 40-42 campaign in a 2014-15 season that was expected to be a rebuilding year and carrying on through their deepest playoff runs.
The 2016 roster was the Eastern Conference’s top seed, sure, and featured a legitimate MVP candidate in Isaiah Thomas. However, with just 53 wins in a major down year for the Eastern Conference, they’re generally considered one of the weakest one seeds in recent memory. As has happened to many Eastern upstarts over the past decade, they were unceremoniously disposed of by LeBron James in the conference finals. Even if Thomas had been healthy, the Cavaliers would have been substantially favored. It was a fun season, but not one anybody realistically expected to yield a championship.
The 2017 incarnation of the team, meanwhile, may have come just a few missed threes away from the NBA Finals, but they similarly felt like overachievers. Without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward, they were playing with house money for the entirety of the playoffs. The seven-game rematch against Cleveland signaled that these Celtics were capable of greatness, but that greatness still felt a few years away from becoming fully realized.
The one season where the Celtics approached real title expectations may have been their worst season of the era. The 2018 Celtics returned Irving and Hayward to the previous year’s ECF team, and for many, that added up to legitimate title contention, but they struggled with consistency and internal strife all season. By the time they were finally laid to rest by the top-seeded Bucks, seemingly everyone was happy to see them go.
In the final 44 games of the Toronto's phenomenal title defense season, the Raptors went 35-9.— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) September 12, 2020
5 of the 9 losses to Boston.
That was not only the biggest win of the Brad Stevens' era, it was the Celtics biggest win in a decade.
The best team they've eliminated since. pic.twitter.com/yPDz9RvTT5
Now, finally, the Celtics broke through the wall. Game 7 against Toronto is the first true signature win of Stevens’ tenure (Game 7 against Washington, while fun, came against vastly weaker competition), securing the first signature series win at the same time. The reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors were a bona fide title contender in their own right. Even having lost Kawhi Leonard in free agency last offseason, they finished the regular season with a better net rating than they had in their championship season (6.1 vs 5.8).
Had this Raptors team won Game 7 and advanced to the ECF or beyond, nobody would have blinked an eye. Yet the Celtics largely outperformed them across the series, even in their losses, and made winning plays down the stretch. Suggesting that these Celtics can go all the way after a series like that is certainly not a stretch.
So yes, the Boston Celtics have finally arrived. They’ve put the league on notice. Their window of contention starts now. But it’s not enough to merely show up. Championships require more. The Miami Heat may not be on quite the same level as Toronto, but they’re a tough, versatile, well-coached team that is brimming with confidence.
The Celtics have shown they’re capable of greatness, now it’s time to follow through and handle the Heat. The NBA Finals await.