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The Celtics have figured out how to win close games

The series was tight, but Boston consistently delivered in the clutch.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Brooklyn Nets
Marcus Smart dives for a loose ball in the fourth quarter Monday.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When the Celtics tell their grandkids about this sweep someday, they’ll almost certainly reminisce about how they won each game by 30 and how the Nets never stood a chance.

The legend will inevitably grow and the story will inevitably evolve year by year, and eventually they’ll spin it as though Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum didn’t miss a single shot and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant didn’t make one all series. They’ll say Payton Pritchard was throwing down windmills, Sam Hauser was simply unguardable, and Ben Simmons was a complete non-factor (oh wait, that part’s actually true).

The reality is, though, while the Celtics unquestionably outplayed the Nets and deserved to win in four games, the series was tight the entire way. Yes, the Celtics were largely in control, and yes they’re clearly the better team, but they only won by 1, 7, 6, and 4. It felt like more, yet it wasn’t.

But no, that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s probably the best thing that could have happened to this team as the defending champion Bucks (presumably) await. Winning close games was once a major weakness, and now, it appears it’s become a strength. The Celtics’ ability to finish each game and deliver blow after blow in the clutch shows just how far they’ve come and how tightly knit this group is.

“This was a very taxing four games,” Tatum said. “It took everything on both ends of the floor.”

Boston started the season 7-16 in clutch games, a statistic that was as puzzling as the 18-21 start overall and was a major reason the Celtics found themselves out of the playoff picture. Once the win streak began, they started thumping teams so badly that they rarely got the chance to prove themselves in close contests.

In a torrid 27-game stretch, they went 0-3 in games decided by five or fewer and 22-2 in all other games. They never really figured it out, either. That is until the playoffs, when they acted like they’ve been doing this all season when the reality is that they haven’t. Suddenly, everyone knows their late-game role, Tatum and Brown are cold-blooded assassins, and winning plays are the norm.

Game 1 required some true brilliance on the final two possessions. Game 2 required tremendous poise after the Nets nearly spoiled the Celtics’ comeback with a comeback of their own. Game 3 required some finishing touches after the Nets cut it to 6 late.

Game 4 required supreme togetherness, as the Celtics were unflappable even after Tatum fouled out with 2:49 remaining. Irving hit a 3 and Durant a jumper to cut it to 1 with 1:28 left, but Brown finished at the rim, Smart dove on the floor, and Horford tipped one home to essentially seal it.

The NBA is a star-driven league, but the Celtics have proven that having the right complement of players around those stars is also extremely important late in games. In the regular season, they were 13-22 (.371 – second-worst in the NBA) and shot 40.1 percent in the clutch. In this series, they finished plus-3.8, shot 52.9 percent and limited the Nets to 30.8 percent shooting.

As radio play-by-play announcer Sean Grande notes, the Celtics were 11-18 games decided by seven or fewer in the regular season. In the playoffs so far? 4-0. It was just a matter of time before they found their late-game mojo, and they did so at a perfect time.

“Every game was tough,” Tatum said, “but we was locked in from the beginning.”

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