BOSTON — New building. Different cast. Next century. All that, and the Celtics’ Game 7 magic, especially at home and on the famed parquet floor, remains as strong as ever.
The latest evidence of the franchise’s dominance when it comes to “do-or-die” games occurred Monday night, where the top-seeded Celtics ran away from the Washington Wizards 115-105 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to set up a date with the defending NBA champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in the conference finals starting on Wednesday night. While only a couple of players on the Celtics’ roster had ever experienced playing in a Game 7 before tonight, putting on the green and white in that situation surely has a transformative effect, and that phenomenon has maintained its efficacy going on seven decades now.
In its franchise history, Boston is now 22-8 all-time in Game 7s, and their invincibility at home in those scenarios is astounding, as it is now 19-4 in Game 7s played at home.
Washington, however, was all ready to spoil the party at Boston Garden, err, TD Garden, taking a 72-64 lead midway through the third quarter, with Bradley Beal, who hit five of his first six shots he attempted in the third, starting to look like Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks in that famed shootout in Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals in Beantown. But then came Kelly Olynyk off the bench for the Celtics and, for tonight, he was the reincarnation of Bill Walton and Scott Wedman. (Remember the Memorial Day Massacre, when Wedman made all 11 of his field goal attempts off the bench in Game 1 of the 1985 NBA Finals against the Lakers?) Olynyk propelled the Celtics into the lead almost by himself, scoring 14 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter and sparking an extended 30-9 run that put the Celtics in control of the game by the midway point of the fourth quarter.
“It was unbelievable, especially to do it in front of our fans and the city of Boston,” said Olynyk, who became the first Celtics player since 2009 (Eddie House) to score at least 25 points in a playoff game while coming off the bench. “It was unbelievable to be in there and feel that energy, feel that enthusiasm, the passion that 20,000 people had and just thrive off that. It was pretty special to be a part of and hopefully we can relive that.”.
Being in the arena tonight was to relive Game 7s of yesteryear, from the rustic, dilapidated yet beloved Boston Garden to this current home of the Celtics. Seeing Isaiah Thomas using his speed and quickness to create for others while scoring almost at will tonight was like seeing another Celtics diminutive left-handed great, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, who won a Game 7 in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals against Philadelphia on the way to a championship with Boston that year. For Thomas, the latest basketball star in this storied basketball city, recalling the franchise’s great track record in games with the highest of stakes was a motivating tool going into tonight’s game, though his memories are of more recent Celtics vintage.
“All night, last night and day, I watched, 2008, Paul Pierce vs. LeBron [James] and how special that was; two superstars going at it, guarding each other, and it was a historic game,” said Thomas to A Lot of Sports Talk, referring to Game 7 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals in which James (45 points) and Pierce (41) put on a memorable mano a mano duel at TD Garden as the Celtics triumphed that day on their way to its most recent NBA title. “I definitely did my studying and I knew it was going to be a big-time game tonight. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy at all and we came out on top. That says a lot about the team we are and we believe in each other, so we just kept going.”
Aside from the two stars of the night in Thomas (29 points, 12 assists) and Olynyk, it wasn’t too hard to see the Celtics’ past in the play of their current crop of stars. Marcus Smart, the emotional leader and defensive stopper of the team, channeled his inner Dennis Johnson, tasked with trying to slow down Beal while also carrying the responsibility of contributing on both ends of the floor. One play from Smart in particular stood out tonight and became the first true momentum shift towards the Celtics’ favor.
Down 53-51 with 30 seconds remaining in the half, a Boston possession ended with Avery Bradley’s shot being blocked by Marcin Gortat, directly leading to a 2-on-1 fast break opportunity for the Wizards with a chance to open up a two-possession lead before halftime. In came Smart from out of nowhere, a la LeBron and his game-saving block from a trail position during last year’s NBA Finals finale, to block Otto Porter’s layup attempt. On the ensuing possession, Smart was fouled and made both free throws to tie the game. It was one of many crucial plays Smart made, as he finished the night stuffing the stat sheet: 13 points (11 in the second half), six rebounds, four assists and two blocks. A 28.3 percent three-point shooter during the regular season, Smart also hit both of his three-point attempts.
“Those plays [by Smart] are huge, like the block at the end of the half when they’ve already got a lead and now you block a shot and then you go down and shoot free throws – it’s a huge play,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “The plays that he made with the big rebounds, you know he guarded Beal after Beal got going – and Beal was tremendous tonight. And those two big threes were – it’s exactly what we talk about. We can talk about Marcus’ shooting percentage all year round all we want, but I think we all know that when it’s all on the line, he’s going to make it. And that’s a unique trait, I think.”
Stevens pushed all the right buttons in the games at home in this series, much like Doc Rivers and KC Jones and Bill Fitch before him, when they stalked the sidelines for the Celtics during the postseason. Unlike Jones and Fitch, Stevens does his work in the new Boston Garden, TD Garden, which sure sounded like the old Garden with the cacophony of noise that made it next to impossible to hear one’s own thoughts — especially when the Celtics made their move in the second half.
“I mean, it was ridiculous,” said Stevens, describing the ear-shattering noise level in the building tonight. “It was fantastic. It was unbelievable. I tried to tell my friends back in Indiana — even being in the last two years in the playoffs that there’s no place like this building in the playoffs. And I’m not sure that I’ve even felt that this building had ever reached this level tonight, at least since I’ve been here. I wasn’t fortunate enough to live some of those good memories of the past, but hopefully, we can keep having nights like this.”
For the Wizards, they now know the feeling that many other teams of the past have felt afterward when trying to come into Boston to win a winner-take-all playoff game: abject misery. Despite the second-half lead, the Wizards were plagued by stagnant offensive possessions later in the game, with Beal almost having to singlehandedly win the game – and the series – by himself. Dominique Wilkins’ 47 points in that 1988 playoff game were not enough because of the heroics of Larry Legend. Beal’s 38 points and five three-pointers tonight were not enough, either.
“I’m more disappointed we lost than anything,” said Beal, who scored 24 of his 38 points in the second half. “I don’t care how well I played. I don’t care if I played bad. The end result, the only thing that matters is getting a win. These stats don’t mean much to me right now.”
The stats put up in this series by his backcourt mate, John Wall, were staggering: 25.1 points, 10.3 assists and that memorable game-winning three-pointer with 3.5 seconds left on Friday in Washington to force a seventh game. Unfortunately, he picked the biggest game of the series to have his worst night. Though 18 points and 11 assists are not shabby, Wall only made eight of his 23 shot attempts from the floor. Tonight was the only game in the series in which he did not record at least 20 points.
“Our goal was to get to the Eastern Conference Finals and we came up one game short of that,” said Wall. “So it’s not a satisfied season to me.”
Back in 2000, when TD Garden was still in its infancy, then coach Rick Pitino made his now-infamous postgame rant where he exclaimed that Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were not walking through those TD Garden doors to satisfy the then success-starved Celtics fans. Those fans have now seen better days, and the Celtics have seen another championship since that nadir under Pitino. A run to a championship might happen again this season, as long as the spirit of those Celtics greats of yesterday continues to hang around this new Boston Garden like the 17 championship banners up in the rafters. Even a force of nature like LeBron James could play second fiddle to the mystique of the Celtics.
We’ll soon find out.