MIAMI: The Boston Celtics, led by 26 points from Jayson Tatum, advanced to the NBA Finals by defeating Miami 100-96 on Sunday, setting up a showdown against the Golden State Warriors.
Boston captured the winner-take-all matchup to take the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals 4-3 and secure a place in the championship series, which begins Thursday in San Francisco.
The Warriors have been waiting for an opponent since this past Thursday after needing only five games to beat the Dallas Mavericks for the West title.
The Celtics, who eliminated 2021 NBA champion Milwaukee in a seventh game earlier this month, held off the Heat down the stretch to advance after losing the conference finals three times in the past five seasons.
“To get over the hump with this group, it means everything,” Tatum said. “Not a lot of people believed in us, but it worked out.”
Tatum, who also had 10 rebounds and six assists, was named the Eastern Conference Most Valuable Player after what he called the biggest game of his career.
Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown each added 24 points for Boston while Jimmy Butler led Miami with 35 points in a losing cause.
Boston veteran center Al Horford reached his first NBA Finals at age 35.
“This group is special,” he said. “I’m happy to be sharing this moment with these guys.”
Golden State split two games with the Celtics in the regular season, winning 111-107 in December at Boston and losing 110-88 in March at San Francisco.
The Celtics reached the NBA Finals for the first time since losing the 2010 title to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Celtics haven’t won the NBA crown since 2008.
The Warriors, in the NBA Finals for the sixth time in eight years, seek their fourth title in that span and the first since 2018.
Smart had six points in a 10-1 spurt by Boston for a 65-52 Celtics lead early in the third quarter, but a 7-0 Heat run soon after pulled Miami within 72-65 and the Celtics carried an 82-75 lead into the final quarter.
An 8-0 Celtics spurt early in the fourth quarter lifted Boston ahead 90-79, the Heat missing nine shots in a row during the futility run.
Max Strus sank a three-pointer to close an 11-0 Miami run and lift the Heat within 98-96 in the dying seconds, but Smart hit two free throws to produce the final margin and the Celtics kept Miami at bay from there.
“We figured it out,” Brown said. “We persevered. We got the job done.”
Boston jumped ahead 20-7 and led by as much as 34-17 early in the second quarter, but the Heat closed the second quarter on an 11-2 run to pull within 55-49 at half-time.
Butler scored 24 points in the first half while Brown had 15 and Tatum 13 to lead the Celtics.