Lovable Celtics Bounce Raps, Advance To Another ECF

BOSTON – It’s hard not to love this Celtics team, isn’t it?

No matter where your allegiance may lie, no matter how much you loathe Boston’s rich history, no matter how much you may want another team to win, it’s just impossible not to love these guys.

That’s because they play with heart. They play with grit. They play with mental and physical toughness. And, most endearing of all, they play for each other without an inkling of ego inside their locker room.

Those characteristics are what helped them to end the defending-champion Toronto Raptors’ season Friday night in Game 7. They are what pushed Boston into the Eastern Conference Finals for the third time in four seasons. They are what could very well fuel the Celtics to their 18th world championship next month.

Game 7 was yet another bloodbath. Boston and Toronto hung their hats on the defensive end all season long and all series long, and they did so again Friday night. Neither team managed to shoot better than 41.3 percent from the field. Neither team managed to shoot better than 28.6 percent from 3-point range. It was an offensive struggle from start to finish.

It was clear early on that this game wasn’t going to be won with skill. It was instead going to be won with the aforementioned characteristics: heart, grit and toughness.

In the end, as Jayson Tatum said, “We just wanted it more.”

It sure looked that way.

Boston did not score a field goal during the final 5:20 of the contest yet still found a way to take home the winner-take-all contest. It did so be relying on its all-too-likeable hallmarks.

Whether it was Marcus Smart’s incredible block from behind on Norman Powell with 58.2 seconds left, or Tatum’s effort on the offensive glass following a missed free throw with 34.9 seconds left, or Grant Williams’ stout defense on Fred VanVleet that sealed the game, Boston just figured out a way – any way – to get it done as a group.

“I turned the ball over, we missed some shots, and you’ve just gotta pull your shorts up and grind and defend,” Tatum explained of crunch time. “Get a stop. Rebound. Don’t make excuses. Four or five minutes left – it’s winning time. Do whatever it takes.”

The Celtics did as much, and now they’ve punched their ticket into the NBA’s Final Four for the third time in four seasons. This trip, however, feels different.

It feels different because of the enjoyment coming out of that locker room; the celebration and appreciation these players have for one another.

In years past, there were players who soaked up the limelight. There were others who sought it out.

That’s not a bad thing. It worked for those teams. For this team, however, it’s all about sharing the limelight and lifting each other up.

Jaylen Brown sat at his postgame press conference and spoke not one word about himself. His words revolved around the people who surround him; the ones who lift him up each and every day.

He spoke about learning from and growing with Tatum. He spoke about Kemba Walker’s humble leadership. He spoke in broad terms about the positivity that encapsulates this roster on a daily basis.

“This is a great group. Tough group. Resilient group,” Brown said. “We’ve got a lot of heart. A lot of fight about ourselves. We don’t back down from challenges. That’s what we need from each other. It’s inspiring just to be in the locker room with these guys.”

‘Inspiring,’ the 23-year-old said, to describe his teammates.

“I’m grateful to be alongside those guys,” he added.

Then there’s Walker, who was stuck in purgatory in Charlotte for the first eight years of his career – never on a team that was good enough to advance out of the first round of the Playoffs, but never on a team that was bad enough stockpile high-end talent through the Draft.

Walker came to Boston as a free agent for this exact experience. He wanted to win, no matter what his role might be.

During this series, as Toronto stifled him with a box-and-one zone, his role was to play off the ball and to let his teammates go to work. He did so with no hesitation.

The result was Tatum averaging 24.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game during the series, while Brown averaged 20.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game.

Those two players, along with Smart, led Boston throughout this series. Walker chipped in when needed, and he’s just fine with that.

“It’s everything I expected,” he said of signing up to team up with Boston’s young stars. “I knew how great those guys are. I knew how hard they worked. I knew that they were rising superstars. I just felt like I can help their growth a little bit. It’s everything I expected. It’s been so much fun being around these guys.”

The feeling is mutual. The Celtics haven’t been bashful about the importance of Walker’s presence as a grounded leader, one who adds positive energy to the room each and every day. His presence has given the Celtics even more joy in their success.

“I’m really happy for him,” Brad Stevens said of Walker after Friday’s victory. “He deserves to experience this. He’s everything that’s good about basketball. He loves the game. He’s a great teammate. He doesn’t care if he gets any of the glory. He’s just a special guy.”

Truthfully, Walker isn’t alone in that sense. This is a special group, one that’s so hard not to love.

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