Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (L) and Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum each led their teams in scoring in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday in Miami. Photo by Rhona Wise/EPA-EFE
MIAMI, May 29 (UPI) -- Jayson Tatum scored a team-high 26 points and the Boston Celtics fought off a fierce final-minutes rally to beat the Miami Heat on Sunday at FTX Arena and advance to the 2022 NBA Finals.
"The road that we took to get here, not a lot of people believed in us," Tatum, the Eastern Conference finals MVP, said during the trophy presentation after the 100-96 win.
"We took the toughest route, and it worked out."
The Golden State Warriors will host the Celtics in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday in San Francisco.
The Celtics led by as many as 17 points and never trailed in the Game 7 win. They watched that lead dwindle down to just two points with 50 seconds remaining.
Heat star Jimmy Butler, who scored a game-high 35 points, then tossed up a go-ahead 3-point attempt, which bounced off the rim for a heartbreaking miss.
Celtics guard Marcus Smart put the victory on ice with two free throws with 11 seconds remaining.
"My thought process was go for the win, which I did," Butler told reporters. "I missed the shot, but I'm taking that shot...I'm living with it."
Tatum was one of three Celtics players with at least 20 points. Smart and fellow Celtics guard Jaylen Brown scored 24 points apiece.
"It feels heartbreaking," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We just wanted a crack at Golden State. I love this group. This team was here to compete for a title."
The Celtics scored six unanswered off the tip off. The Heat went on an 8-0 run a few minutes later to cut into the deficit, but still trailed 32-17 to end the first.
The Heat outscored the Celtics 32-23 in the second, but trailed 55-49 at halftime. Butler scored 24 points in the first half, including 18 in the second quarter.
The Celtics outscored the Heat 27-26 in the third to carry a seven-point lead into the fourth.
Heat scored the first two baskets of the fourth to cut the deficit to three points. The Celtics answered with an 8-0 run and pushed the lead back to 13.
Point guard Kyle Lowry then hit a jump shot to spark a Heat run of 11 unanswered points. Butler's big miss and Smart's free throws followed, ending the Heat's season and punching the Celtics' ticket to the NBA Finals.
Tatum totaled 10 rebounds and six assists in addition to his 26 points. Celtics forward Grant Williams chipped in 11 points off the bench.
"Today was the biggest test, not just of the year, but of our careers: to mentally come into a Game 7 away, after losing on our home court," Jaylen Brown said. "We got it done."
Heat center Bam Adebayo totaled 25 points and 11 rebounds in the loss. Lowry chipped in 15 for the Heat. Miami, which led the NBA this season in 3-point percentage, made just six of 30 shots from 3-point range in the series finale.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals will tip off at 9 p.m. EDT Thursday from Chase Center. The game will air on ABC.