*Editor's Note: The Boston Celtics are on to the Eastern Conference Finals for the third time in four years after edging the Toronto Raptors 92-87 in Friday night's Game 7. NBC Sports Boston's Abby Chin shares her observations from the thrilling win.
Kemba Walker Is All Heart
Where to begin? There is so much to unpack from the Celtics' Game 7 win over the Toronto Raptors. I’m going to start with Kemba Walker. It was obvious after the game how genuinely excited Walker’s teammates are for the eight-year vet to be playing in his first Conference Finals.
Marcus Smart said post game, “It’s just a great feeling to have a player like Kemba, who’s the ultimate competitor, unselfish, he doesn’t care if he scores 30 or two points, he just wants to win.”
“Unselfish” is the key word when you’re talking about Walker. His scoring or assist numbers may not have been what he wanted against the Raptors, but Walker’s impact on this team is immeasurable in the way he’s brings these guys together.
Talking to Walker before Game 7, he told me that’s really all that matters to him.
"That's really important," Walker said. "That was something that I wanted to do from day one when I signed here in Boston. I wanted to make sure that we were together all the time. Spending time with each other, getting to know one another and being close.”
Walker said that’s become even more important in the NBA bubble.
“It can be really tough," he said. "Especially for some guys, it's been tough. You only really have each other, to watch each other's back.”
NBA cameras caught Walker leaving the floor Friday night saying, "Excuse me if I do enjoy this." As he should.
That’s a major difference I noticed in the Celtics after winning this series: They actually allowed themselves to enjoy it a little bit.
Not Brad Stevens of course. His demeanor hardly every changes. But, the postgame Zoom sessions with the players were a different story.
After the first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, the guys were stoic and very business-like. No one indulged in any sort of self-congratulation. You could tell they knew the challenge that lied ahead in the Raptors.
Friday night was not like that.
Jayson Tatum, who is headed to his second Conference Finals in three seasons, said, “You don’t take it for granted and this is special; there’s only four teams left. So you take some time off, because this was a tough one, and just get ready.”
Run. Run. Run.
Cameras inside the Celtics locker room at halftime of Game 7 captured Stevens referencing a phone call with two legends whose advice for Game 7 was, Run. Run. Run.
The great Mike Gorman let us in behind the scenes before the game in this tweet:
Stevens was hesitant to say who the team actually talked to, but he relented in the end and told me, “We've got some good fans, and some of our fans are pretty damn accomplished basketball players who are the best, the best, the best. Thanks Couz (Bob Cousy) and Tommy (Heinsohn) for that little tidbit.”
The Celtics scored a series-high 31 points off 18 turnovers by the Raptors on Friday night. You know Tommy Heinsohn is proud!
Marcus Smart MVP
I don’t get a vote and it’s not a real award, but if you ask me, Marcus Smart was the MVP of this series. Daniel Theis told me the other day, "[Smart]s our motor. As soon as we see him going, play defense, everybody wants to follow.”
That motor has become even more important inside the NBA bubble without fans to generate energy and enthusiasm.
One of two moments Brad Stevens called the plays of Friday's game was Smart’s chase-down block on Norman Powell late in the fourth quarter. To show you how Smart thinks the about game, here's how he described the play when I asked.
“It’s funny because as soon as Norman caught the ball, instantly I remembered the last game that exact same play, he came at me full court and got the and-1 in the same type (way) in a close game, and it put them up three or something like that -- it was a tie game.
"So when he caught the ball, in my mind I was just telling myself, ‘He has to dunk it. I’m not going to give him no foul; I’m just going to meet him up top and see who wins that battle.’
"I bet on myself 110% of the time, and I’m first team All-Defense for a reason, and I believe in that wholeheartedly.”
NBA.com's John Schuhmann illustrates exactly that in this tweet.
Gordon Hayward back in the bubble
The Celtics sure could have used a player like Gordon Hayward in Game 6 against the Raptors. It might’ve made Game 7 completely unnecessary.
The good news is, Hayward is back in the NBA bubble and out of quarantine. We have video proof. And, to the untrained eye, he seemed to be moving around pretty well on that injured ankle Friday night.
Stevens says, “I think he’ll be back at some point in that series (against the Miami Heat), but I don’t know when.”
When that day comes, Brian Scalabrine isn’t so sure Hayward should go right back into the starting lineup. He brought it up more than once on Post Game Live. I tend to agree. Smart does so much for this team, as referenced above. But, thankfully, that is a discussion for another day.