On Monday night, the Miami Heat embarked on an impressive postseason run by dominating the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals and winning a breathtaking rollercoaster best-of-seven series in Game 7, 103-84. extended.
“I had a lot of faith in myself and this group of guys,” said Heat forward Jimmy Butler, who was named Most Valuable Player of the Series. He scored 28 points in Game 7.
The Heat, resurrected as the No. 8 seed in the East, to the surprise of everyone but them, will face the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals starting Thursday. The Nuggets swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals a week ago to secure their first championship round. The Heat are the second eighth seed to reach the NBA Finals in the current playoff format, after the Knicks in 1998-99.
It wasn’t easy. “Sometimes you have to suffer for what you really want,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said at the post-game trophy presentation.
After the Heat won the first three games of the series, the Celtics found their rhythm and won the next three games to clinch the deciding game for the seventh time at home. Boston was looking to become the first team to win an NBA playoff series after trailing 3-0. But Miami avoided becoming a historical footnote or punchline by dipping into its bottomless well of perseverance.
Even when the Heat struggled in the regular season, losing almost as much as they won, Spoelstra stuck to his approach.
Spoelstra said he felt the Heat could improve if they stayed focused on their day-to-day work. There was nothing particularly sexy—meeting up after a disappointing loss, watching a movie, practicing hard.
“They are satisfying experiences,” Spoelstra said at the beginning of the series. “Especially when you lose a game and are criticized for it. But you can still band together and try to solve the problem.”
The Heat remained unsuccessful for about half a year. But over the past six weeks, they’ve unleashed all the promise and potential of winning an NBA Finals re-appearance. It’s the seventh of the franchise’s 35 seasons and the second in the last four years.
“The ups and downs prepared us for this moment,” Heat All-Star center Bam Adebayo said during the series as the Heat worked toward their goal of defeating the Celtics.
The Heat won the first two games of the series in Boston and beat the Celtics in Game 3 in Miami. Spoelstra said “a lot of bloating” was driving the team, but declined to give details.
His players were more aggressive. They remember losing to the Celtics in the conference finals last season. It was a particularly disappointing loss for the Heat, who were the top seed in the East and had seven games to go in the series.
This time the Heat nearly blew it away. Before Game 7, the Celtics made baseball history in the 2004 American League Championship Series by defeating the Yankees in a dramatic comeback from the Boston Red Sox, coming from a 3-0 series comeback. I dreamed of a reenactment of that time. The Red Sox then defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series for their first championship since 1918.
But Miami was too determined, too tough, and found beauty in fighting. Butler, the team’s talented two-way forward, made his mark early in the series and Adebayo became a defensive threat. But their supporting cast made a difference.
Small forward Caleb Martin, who joined the starting lineup in Games 6 and 7, was the Heat’s most consistent player throughout the series. He scored 26 points in Game 7 and made 11, including 4 of 16 3-pointers. The team’s starting point guard, Gabe Vincent, came out in the final two games with a sprained ankle. And Duncan Robinson who came out of the bench hit a timely 3-point shot.
The Heat appeared to rely on defense to drown out the noise in front of an enthusiastic hostile crowd during player introductions on Monday. The Celtics missed all 10 3-pointers in the first quarter. The Heat lead by 17 points in the second quarter.
When Martin got to work again, Boston shrunk Miami’s lead and finished the third quarter with a come-from-behind baseline jumper. He kicked off the fourth quarter with his fourth 3-pointer of the game to lift the Heat’s lead back to 13.
Adebayo was questioned early in the series about the key to his team’s success.
“I believe,” he said. “Believe in each other. Believe you can win. Believe you can beat the number one team in the league. As you know, belief is real and we have the will to win.”
The Heat certainly defeated the No. 1 team and upset the Milwaukee Bucks, who had the league’s best regular-season record in the first round of the playoffs. In the second round, they beat the fifth-seeded Knicks in six games to set up a series against Boston.
The Celtics thought they could go deep again in the playoffs after losing to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals last season. But the predictability and unforeseen obstacles got in their way before they were called up for the preseason.
Topping the list was the sudden absence of Ime Udoka, who left a defensively-minded imprint on the team as the Celtics’ first-year head coach last season. But in September, less than a week before training camp, the Celtics suspended him for the season for “violating team policy.” Two people briefed on the matter said they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, but said Udoka had had an affair with a female subordinate.
The whole situation cast an undesirable shadow on the Celtics as they try to focus on the upcoming season. “It was hell,” Marcus Smart, the team’s starting point guard and last season’s Defensive Player of the Year, said at the time.
Instead of going outside and hiring an experienced coach to replace Udoka, the team prioritized continuity by temporarily promoting Joe Mazura, who was an assistant to Udoka’s staff.
The 34-year-old Mazura, whose only previous head coaching experience was at Fairmont State University in West Virginia’s Division 2 program, suddenly finds himself at the helm of a championship-winning NBA team. It was a gamble that seemed to pay off before the All-Star break when Boston had the best record in the league. The Celtics appointed Mazura as their permanent head coach in February and formally ended ties with Udoka, whom the Houston Rockets hired as head coach last month.
However, Boston languished in the final weeks of the regular season, dropping to the No. 2 seed in the East behind Milwaukee and needing six games to eliminate the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. (The series was so unexpectedly long that Janet Jackson had to postpone her concert in Atlanta. Jason Tatum in Boston. publicly apologized to her. )
The pressure only increased on Mazura and the team’s two stars, Tatum and Jaylen Brown, during the Celtics’ conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers. As the series spanned seven games, Tatum and Brown were inconsistent. Mazzura came under scrutiny for some of his lineup choices and his apparent dislike of taking timeouts in crucial situations.
“Joe is learning like all of us,” Smart said during the series. “I know he’s been killed a lot, it’s a given.”
But after Tatum scored 51 points in the series deciding game against the 76ers, the Celtics faced an experienced opponent with payoff in mind, the Heat.
The Heat have come a long and bumpy road just to reach the Conference Finals. They had to beat the Chicago Bulls in a play-in game to advance to the postseason. In the first round against the Bucks, he lost two rotation players to injuries, Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo.
But the Heat weren’t going to lose against the Celtics. Not after a growing season under Spoelstra, not after Butler gave confidence to a lowly teammate, not against someone who killed Miami’s championship dreams a year ago.
“We go out and play hoops and play basketball the right way,” Butler said, “we know we always have a chance.”