ORLANDO (Florida) • This will be the Boston Celtics’ third trip to the Eastern Conference finals in four seasons, while their opponents, the Miami Heat, are making their first appearance since 2014.
However, there are no favourites as the best-of-seven series gets under way on Tuesday, as this is the first time both the top two seeds in the East are not in the conference finals since the National Basketball Association switched to the 16-team play-off format in 1984.
Jayson Tatum led all scorers with 29 points as the Celtics came out tops in Game 7 on Friday, eliminating league champions Toronto Raptors four games to three after a 92-87 win at Disney World.
Fred VanVleet had 20 points to pace the Canadian team, who had battled back from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits in the series, but came just short in the end.
The guard missed a game-tying three-pointer with 12 seconds left, while Kemba Walker made two free throws at the other end to seal the hard-fought victory, which Tatum claimed showed their championship mettle.
“If you want to achieve something great, if you want to win, it’s not going to be easy,” the All-Star forward said. “That’s what we’re here for.”
The Raptors were left to rue what could have been, with their coach Nick Nurse conceding “we didn’t play great in this series”.
But for the third-seeded Celtics, their quest for a first trip to the NBA Finals in a decade goes on.
In their way stand the fifth-seeded Heat. The rivalry may not be as longstanding as the one with the Philadelphia 76ers, but there is little love lost between both teams.
Much has been made of the distaste Boston president Danny Ainge has for his Heat counterpart Pat Riley and vice versa.
The three previous times they met in the post-season were all heated affairs, particularly the most recent meeting in 2012 when eventual champions Miami were taken to Game 7 in the East finals.
NO QUARTER GIVEN
I feel like they won’t take it easy on me and I won’t take it easy on them. So may the best man win.
JAE CROWDER, Miami forward, who along with centre Kelly Olynyk, used to play for Boston.
This regular season, things were similarly tight, with Celtics winning two games to one, though their last contest a month ago in the “bubble” saw the Heat emerge with a win.
With two Miami players formerly with Boston, there are also no secrets between both rosters.
Heat forward Jae Crowder, who along with centre Kelly Olynyk used to wear the famed green jersey, told local daily The Sun Sentinel: “I do have relationships there. But it’s just competition, man.
“Once I get on the court, I’ve been on the court with my own brother before and I tried to rip his head off. We’re in the play-offs. Both teams are trying to fight for one goal.
“I feel like they won’t take it easy on me and I won’t take it easy on them. So may the best man win.”
Boston coach Brad Stevens is expecting a tough battle, but he feels his team are made of sterner stuff after being taken to the wire.
We should definitely be hardened,” he 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.”
In the West, Jamal Murray scored a team-high 26 points as the Denver Nuggets stayed alive with a 111-105 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, reducing the deficit to 3-2 and ensuring a Game 6 today.
Finals Most Valuable Player Kawhi Leonard led all scorers with 36 points, with the Clippers still requiring one more win to reach their first-ever conference finals.