On Basketball: It wasn't pretty, but Celtics and their young stars survive

Marcus Smart and the Celtics survived Game 7 against Toronto on Friday night. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The last eight days were no picnic for the Boston Celtics.

It's been an edgy, angry and frustrating experience waiting for the Green to close out the Toronto Raptors in their Eastern Conference playoff series. From the infuriating defensive lapse that cost them a 3-0 series lead with a half-second left in Game 3 to the epic, frustrating double overtime loss in Game 6, Friday night's Game 7 seemed like a powder keg of negativity waiting to explode.

For a while, it was. A tractor pull of a basketball game in which Boston never felt fully in sync on the offensive end had you spend most of the second half asking yourself how the Celtics could possibly still be in the lead.

Somehow, someway, thanks mostly to ridiculously good and inspired defense from Marcus Smart, Boston did hold on. The 92-87 Game 7 win finally put away the defending NBA champions and sent the Celtics onto the Eastern Conference Finals for the third time in four years.

Smart was great; Games 6 and 7 of this series were perhaps his best in a Celtic uniform. The team's leader and NBA All-Defensive team staple is the embodiment of the changing of the guard that's taking place in Celtics history (and maybe in the East overall) in these Orlando bubble playoffs.

This series, and Game 7, were all about the Celtics' young three: Smart, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They carried the day in Game 7, with the veterans brought in to herd them along being largely non-factors. Kemba Walker made some clutch shots but was largely lost all night and Gordon Hayward was again unable to play due to injury.

Had Boston blown the series, those two vets would've been the goats. The young guys bailed them out. Tatum was excellent with 29 points, 12 boards and seven assists. Brown was very good, if a little 3-point happy, and got aggressive in the paint with 21. And Smart, though he also missed eight triples, did his thing on the defense end and saved the game with a block in the final minute.

So as ugly as it was, as brutal to watch as it could be at times, you exhale and you move on. In a few months, never mind years, no one will remember that Boston almost blew this Game 7 or this series. No one remembers that the '08 World Champions almost did the same thing against the lowly Atlanta Hawks.

Moving on, you hope it's a coming of age for the 'Young Three.' They're learning how to win. When they reached the Eastern Conference Finals and lost in 2017 and '18, they weren't ready. They didn't beat anybody as tough as these Raptors in either of those playoffs (sorry, Bucks) and getting by the defending champs shows Boston is mentally tougher than they were back then.

Of course, those teams had to go through a guy named Lebron James to reach the NBA Finals. With all respect to Miami and Jimmy Butler, against whom the East Finals opens on Tuesday, there is no such obstacle this time. Boston will be favored and they ought to win; anything less than the team's first Finals appearance since 2010 (and this city's 19th in the last 30 years) is a failure.

Is it a changing of the guard in the NBA or an Orlando bubble fluke? You look at all the experience Smart, Tatum and Brown have racked up in the last few years and you have to imagine the best is yet to come. They and coach Brad Stevens are already 3-1 in Game 7's; they've played more than 50 playoff games together already and if you add a Finals appearance to that it can only help. The sky is the limit.

On the other hand, next year there could be a Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving super team in New Jersey, Miami could add a piece and the Bucks and 76ers could get their acts together. Boston could be an also ran again in a hurry, which makes it imperative to take advantage of this opportunity.

The Green knew that in Friday's Game 7 and didn't let it slip away despite ample chances for Toronto to snatch victory. They've got to go after Miami with that same vigor (and hopefully with a little more smoothness on offense).

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You can contact Matt Williams at MWilliams@salemnews.com and follow along on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.

Assistant sports editor of The Salem News, blanketing the North Shore with the best coverage you'll find. Football fiend, track guru, seam-head, goaltending aficionado, history buff, stat geek. Allons-Y. #StrikeOutALS

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