Celtics' Game 7 history suggests a new hero could emerge vs. Sixers

Forsberg: Who will emerge as Game 7 hero in Celtics-Sixers? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

BOSTON -- They say the two best words in sports are Game 7. Everybody knows that. But here’s what often gets overlooked in the hype and drama of a winner-take-all showdown.

Game 7s are weird.

Sure, Game 7s are a chance for legends to cement their status. You can’t talk about Bill Russell without noting how he was 22-0 in any winner-take-all game in his basketball career, including an improbable 10-0 in Game 7s.

But thumb through the box scores for the Celtics most recent Game 7s and you won’t necessarily notice the stars. It’s the role players who carved out their own little slice of history that tend to jump out.

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The Kelly Olynyk game. The Terry Rozier game. The Marcus Smart block. The Grant Williams game.

The Celtics have played six Game 7s since Smart and Jaylen Brown joined the team. Boston is 5-1 in those games -- only a superstar night from LeBron James in 2018 put a blemish on Boston’s record -- and the hero has rarely been a headliner.

Which makes us wonder if someone below the radar will emerge as the hero on Sunday when the Celtics and Sixers meet in Game 7 at TD Garden.

It’s easy to think the matchup might boil down to Jayson Tatum and Brown vs. Joel Embiid and James Harden. But it’s just as likely that another hero emerges.

The Celtics -- and their role players -- will benefit from a homecourt advantage (even if Boston has rarely capitalized on that, otherwise, in recent playoff runs). Supporting casts play better at home and especially in the postseason.

In case you need a reminder, here’s a quick recap of Boston’s six Game 7s in the Smart/Brown era:

May 15, 2017: Celtics 115, Wizards 105 (Round 1)

The Olynyk game. Boston’s sweet-shooting big man came off the bench to put up 26 points in 28 minutes while shooting 10 of 14 from the field (and, surprisingly, only 2 of 6 beyond the 3-point arc).

Yes, Isaiah Thomas capped an enchanting series by fighting his way to 29 points, but it was Olynyk who left the Garden roaring as Boston’s bench outscored Washington’s reserves, 48-5.

April 28, 2018: Celtics 112, Bucks 96 (Round 2)

The Rozier game. After Rozier and Eric “Drew” Bledsoe spent seven games barking at each other, it was Rozier who capped a stellar series filling in for injured Kyrie Irving by scoring 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting.

He got help from veteran Al Horford (26 points, 13-17 FG) and rookie Tatum (20 points, +24 over 39 minutes).

May 27, 2018: Cavaliers 87, Celtics 79 (East Finals)

Not every game features a surprise super hero. The Celtics’ improbable run to the Eastern Conference finals -- without Irving or Gordon Hayward available -- ended with James willing his Cleveland team back to the Finals.

Tatum had a loud night (24 points) including a dunk over James with 6:41 to play that helped push Boston out front, briefly. But James dominated the rest of the way.

September 11, 2020: Celtics 92, Raptors 87 (Round 2)

We’ll always remember this game for Smart’s clutch block. Look, the Bubble was weird in general and this series had some absolutely wild finishes. In Game 7, the Jays paired up for 50 points and got a boost from both Smart and Kemba Walker.

But the signature play came with Boston clinging to an 89-87 lead with under a minute to play as Smart produced a chasedown block on Norman Powell to save the win.

May 15, 2022: Celtics 109, Bucks 81 (Round 2)

The Grant game. Tatum put the Celtics on his back and carried the team to a season-saving victory in Milwaukee in Game 6, but it was Williams who took the baton in Game 7.

The Bucks were content to let someone else beat them and Williams was up for the challenge. Playing as part of Boston’s supersized lineup (alongside Tatum and Horford), Williams connected on 10-of-22 shots including 7-of-18 3-pointers for 27 points and a +25 night overall as the Celtics dominated.

May 29, 2022: Celtics 100, Heat 96 (East Finals)

The one where Jimmy missed. The Jays combined for 50 points and Smart had a sneaky big night with 24 points, nine rebounds, five assists, and two steals. But it’s what the opposing superstar couldn’t do that defined this one.

Boston went the final 4:28 without a field goal and the entire city held its breath as Jimmy Butler pulled up in transition with 16.6 seconds to go in a two-point game. The Celtics survived and punched their ticket to the Finals.

So what happens Sunday? Your guess is as good as ours.

The Celtics should feel good about the amount of Game 7 experience they have. Horford will be playing in his ninth Game 7 (he’s 6-2, with one of those losses coming to the Celtics during their 2008 title season). After Sunday, he’ll have appeared in more Game 7s than Larry Bird.

But the message here is that it's a Game 7 and anything can happen, all with a crazy intensity engulfing every moment.

"It’s Frazier and Ali. You gotta be ready,” said Smart. "Those first couple of rounds, teams are feeling good. Round 1, Round 2, we're feeling good, they're feeling good. Now it comes down, 0-0, the last match, who’s going to win?”

Echoed Derrick White: "There’s no holding back. Everything’s an option, everyone’s an option, and you just gotta find a way to win. Winning is all that matters.”

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There’s a lot on the line for the biggest names in this series. Doc Rivers doesn’t want to kick away another series in which his team was first to three wins. Embiid has been solid (averaging 26 points, 11 rebounds) in two Game 7 appearances, but both were losses (to the Raptors in 2019 and Hawks in 2021).

A second-round exit would be a monster disappointment for a Celtics team hellbent on getting back to the Finals. Tatum still hasn’t had a dominating (full) game in this series. Joe Mazzulla is already in the spotlight for missteps that contributed to the Celtics fighting from a 3-2 hole.

It all crescendos on Sunday afternoon at a Garden that has been challenged to be loud. A hero awaits.