With the Boston Celtics staring down a Game 7 in Miami after a team-wide implosion on their home court put them there, Derrick White said it best: “I mean, we’re frustrated, but if it was easy, it wouldn’t be us.”
White had every right to be frustrated. He was, of course, just the latest Celtic in what was becoming a long line of them over the course of the Eastern Conference Finals to put together a great, complete performance, only to watch it slip away thanks to mistake after mistake down the stretch of the game.
You might recall Jayson Tatum’s 29-point outing in a loss in Game 1. Or Jaylen Brown’s 40-point, seven-turnover performance in Game 3, another loss. Then, in Game 6, it came time for White to deliver his quintessential moment as a Celtic. He dropped 22 points — his first 20-point game since being traded to Boston at this season’s deadline — and drained four of his seven attempted threes, just the second time he’s made four-plus triples since joining his new team. Of course, that resulted in a 111-103 loss and the Celtics found themselves with their backs against the wall...again.
“If it was easy, it wouldn’t be us” rang in my ears over the final few moments of Sunday night’s Game 7 victory for the Celtics, a 100-96 heart attack that looked like it could be easy when it was 98-85, but was then suddenly, instantly, distressingly very much not a 13-point game. It was 11, and then nine, and then two. And then, Jimmy Butler was launching a hero ball three that seemed all but inevitable.
“He got a good look at it,” Al Horford said postgame of Butler’s shot. “It was nerve-racking. He pulled up, and anything could have happened there. He could have made the shot.”
“Jimmy has been playing well, so when he pulled up, it was kind of like, ‘oh, man,’” Marcus Smart added. “Just hope he doesn’t make it.”
“I was hoping to God — my mind was to rebound because I was in the lane, so I didn’t want to give up an offensive rebound,” Brown offered up. “But when he shot that, I was like, ‘man, what the hell?’”
Until it didn’t fall, against everything this series had been for Butler, for the most part. Until it clanged off the rim and made its way to Marcus Smart, who drained two clutch free throws, ultimately sealing the victory. It wasn’t easy. Why would it be? Where’s the fun in that?
The way the Celtics got to this point has hardly been by taking anything but the easy path. If this is what some might call “the road less traveled,” that’s because no one wants to travel on it. The Brooklyn Nets were supposed to finally put it all together and handily take care of business against the C’s, despite a season of unrest and a total lack of cohesion between the lines. The Milwaukee Bucks, with their gigantic, immovable mass of a two-time MVP standing in the way, were anything but a cakewalk, Middleton injury aside. And the Heat, the team that reduced a different Celtics team to rubble the last time they met in the conference finals, were less talented, somehow less healthy, and still made things difficult.
“Obviously, we know we want to win a championship,” Tatum said postgame. “But to get over this hump in the fashion that we did it — obviously we took the toughest route possible. Then to win a Game 7 to go to a championship on the road is special.”
Perhaps everything has to be difficult. Perhaps, as Bruce Hornsby and the Range crooned, “that’s just the way it is.”
Celtics revenge tour complete.— StatMuse (@statmuse) May 30, 2022
— Eliminated by Nets in 2021 1R
— Beat Nets in 2022 1R
— Eliminated by Bucks in 2019 2R
— Beat Bucks in 2022 2R
— Eliminated by Heat in 2020 ECF
— Beat Heat in 2022 ECF pic.twitter.com/AoMoCXo68N
Next up is a once-dynastic, once-seasoned, terrifying Golden State Warriors squad that boasts 123 games worth of experience in the NBA Finals in contrast to Boston’s zero. You’ll hear an awful lot about that over the course of the next few days, if not weeks. You’ll hear it when Steph Curry drains a late three, possibly sealing a game. “He’s been here before” or “he knows what it takes” will undoubtedly be something ESPN’s Mark Jackson notes, opposite the words “mama, there goes that man.” You’ll hear it when Steve Kerr makes a late-game adjustment that reminds someone of how he fended off the Cavaliers in 2015, 2017, and 2018.
“It would be all for naught if we go lay an egg in The Finals, and we understand that,” Ime Udoka said of Boston’s impending Finals matchup. “Guys were quick to celebrate but quick to flip the page and say, ‘we’ve got four more, we don’t hang or celebrate Eastern Conference championships in the Celtic organization.’ So, we all fall in line and appreciate that standard of excellence.”
Never mind the fact that the Celtics are the only team with a winning record against the Warriors since Steve Kerr took over in 2014-15, per ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry. There will be continued talk of how this Celtics team hasn’t been there before; ideally, talk of them acting like they’ve been there before creeps in. Chances are it will, in due time.
But when it isn’t easy, perhaps it’s best not to fret too much. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be this team. “That’s us,” Brown said, offering his own version of White’s comments after Game 6. “We’ve been responding all year, all season to adversity. Today was the biggest test, not just of the year but of our careers, to mentally come into a Game 7 away after losing on our home court, which was tough, and we got it done.”