It took every bit of seven games, but Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics are headed to the Eastern Conference finals.
And they dethroned the NBA champions to get there.
Tatum scored 29 points, Jaylen Brown had 21 and the Celtics topped the Toronto Raptors 92-87 on Friday night in Game 7 of the East semifinal series.
Marcus Smart scored 16 points and Kemba Walker added 14 for third-seeded Boston. The Celtics will face the fifth-seeded Miami Heat in the East finals, that series starting Tuesday night.
“If you want to achieve something great, if you want to win, it’s not going to be easy,” Tatum said. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Fred VanVleet scored 20 points for Toronto, which got 16 from Kyle Lowry, 14 from Serge Ibaka, 13 from Pascal Siakam and 11 from Norman Powell. The Raptors were bidding to become the seventh franchise in NBA history to win four consecutive Game 7's.
Boston scored the first seven points of the fourth, taking an eight-point lead. The Celtics never trailed in the final quarter, though it was close all the way to the end.
“We should definitely be hardened," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We should definitely have a lot more in our toolbox to go back to. But we also have to get ready for a different, more unique team now in Miami."
It was the sixth consecutive Game 7 decided by five points or less, though it wasn't always played like a classic. Toronto had 18 turnovers that Boston turned into 31 points; the Celtics shot 9-for-38 from 3-point range and 13-for-23 from the line.
“Man, it was a tough game to lose," an emotional Lowry said. “But they won. Tip your hats to them. They have a chance to go on and play against Miami and get to the championship."
Powell had a chance to tie it on a drive with just under a minute left, his layup erased by Smart with a block that preserved an 89-87 lead. Lowry fouled out on the next possession, a call the Raptors argued and challenged to no avail. Grant Williams missed both free throws, but Powell fouled Tatum going for the rebound.
Tatum made one of two, the lead was three and all Boston needed was one more stop.
The Celtics got just that; VanVleet was well short on a 3-point try, Walker sealed it with free throws with 7.9 seconds left, and Toronto’s reign was about to end.
It was exactly one year ago Friday when four Celtics — Walker, Smart, Brown and Tatum — were part of the USA Basketball team in China that fell apart in the fourth quarter of a Basketball World Cup quarterfinal against France, a loss that kept the Americans out of the Final Four of that tournament.
Not this time. Not this year.
Next week, there will be four NBA teams left standing. The Celtics will be one of them.
“It's about will, determination, resiliency," Brown said. “A lot of that stuff you can't find on the stat sheet."
The back-and-forth started from the jump. Boston quickly put together what became a 13-0 run on the way to an early 19-7 edge. Toronto ripped off 10 straight to lead after the first quarter. Boston then went on a 15-2 spurt to reclaim the lead and the Celtics ended up taking a 50-46 lead into the break.
And the fight never stopped. In the third, Boston pushed the lead to nine. Toronto scored the next eight and eventually took the lead before the Celtics claimed it back — for good.
Boston led 72-71 going into the fourth, making this the 21st Game 7 in NBA history where the margin was zero or one going into the final 12 minutes. And this time, the Raptors didn't have the final answer.
“They gave everything they had," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “Special team.”
Celtics: Boston became the first team in NBA history to win four “road” games in one playoff series. ... Gordon Hayward (sprained right ankle) was on the floor getting shots up before the game. He hasn’t played since Game 1 of the opening-round series against Philadelphia. The Celtics had said he would need four weeks before recovering; Tuesday is the four-week mark.
Raptors: Because of the pandemic-delayed season, Toronto was eliminated 456 days after winning the previous title, the longest such run for a team that didn’t win consecutive championships. ... The Raptors are scheduled to fly home Saturday afternoon.
The Celtics went 2-1 against Miami in the regular season, winning 112-93 on Dec. 4 in Boston and 109-101 at Miami on Jan. 28. The Heat won the lone bubble matchup between the clubs, prevailing 112-106 on Aug. 4.
This will be the first time neither the No. 1 nor No. 2 seed in the East will make the conference finals since the NBA went to the 16-team playoff format in 1984; this one will feature No. 3 Boston and No. 5 Miami.
There have been similar matchups in the West since the league went to this format. No. 3 Dallas beat No. 4 Oklahoma City in 2011, No. 3 San Antonio beat No. 4 Utah in 2007 and No. 3 Portland beat No. 5 Phoenix in 1990.
The last time something like this happened in the East was 1969, when No. 4 Boston beat No. 3 New York in what was then the Eastern Division finals.