NBA history had an appointment Monday in Boston, where so many pages of basketball glory have been written. Whichever team prevailed, it was going to be a game to remember: first because of an unprecedented comeback by the Celtics and second because the Heat, the eighth seed in their conference, were on the verge of becoming only the second team in league history to reach the NBA Finals from that position. The Celtics were the favorites, but Miami came out with a vengeance and prevented a remarkable feat that Boston fans were practically celebrating already.
On the 151 occasions when a team has won the first three games of a best-of-seven contest, it has gone on to win the series. This was no exception. An 84-103 victory in Boston handed Miami a triple prize: the title of Eastern Conference champion, a place in the NBA Finals against the Denver Nuggets, Western Conference champions, and avoiding going down in history as the first team to squander a 3-0 series lead. The Heat will also have enjoyed avenging defeat to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago, when Jimmy Butler missed the decisive shot in Game 7 on his home court.
After blowing hot and cold in the regular season, Miami made the playoffs through the Play-in tournament. While other teams had their eye on the draft lottery, which this year came with the jackpot of Victor Wembanyama, Miami kept fighting to salvage their season and they reaped the reward. Only one previous eighth seed, the New York Knicks in 1999, had made it all the way to the NBA Finals.
Miami faced the best regular season team, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks, in the first round. Jimmy “Playoff” Butler, so nicknamed because he thrives in the postseason, performed miracles to see off the Bucks, who had to manage without their own star player for part of the series.
The Heat also had to deal with significant losses. Victor Oladipo has missed the entire postseason, and Kyle Lowry broke his hand in the first game in Milwaukee. Despite that, the rest of the team rallied to beat the Bucks, then the Knicks, and finally the Celtics. Along with Butler, Bam Adebayo shone. The Olympic champions and All-Star’s real name is Edrice Femi Adebayo, but his mother nicknamed him Bam Bam after the Flintstones character — the strongest kid in the world. And Adebayo brought strength, defensive intensity and rebounding power, but also offensive acumen. The Bam-Butler duopoly were ably supported by Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent and Duncan Robinson.
Butler won the Eastern Conference Finals MVP award. Following defeat in Game 6, with a tenth of a second on the clock, he smiled resignedly. “Basketball for you guys, basketball at its finest, very entertaining,” he said. A year ago, after losing to the Celtics, he made a prophetic promise: “Next year we’re going to be right back in the same situation and we’re going to get it done.” After Monday’s victory, his smile was one of happiness, but he was still not satisfied: “We’re excited, we’re happy, but we’ve got one more to get.”
Bad omens for the Celtics
Monday’s game started with a bad omen for the home team. Jayson Tatum, Boston’s star player, turned his ankle on the first possession. It wasn’t enough for him to be benched but at the very least it made him doubt his own physicality at times. Celtics Coach Joe Mazulla opted to give him some rest as early as the first quarter.
The Celtics’ first three-pointer came after two minutes and Miami’s after almost three, partly due to defensive intensity and partly because of nerves: both teams made only four of their first 14 shots. Then Miami’s shooting improved, and the visitors took advantage. The Celtics, on the other hand, missed all 10 attempts from outside the arc in the first quarter, which ended with Miami holding a narrow 15-22 lead.
In the second quarter, Miami was fired up and extended their lead to 12 points, maintaining the difference at no less than 10 points throughout with Caleb Martin and Jimmy Butler leading the charge to a 41-52 halftime score. Success from the field remained the separation between the two teams, the Heat landing eight three-pointers from 16 attempts and the Celtics four from 21.
Butler opened the third quarter with a three-pointer, then dropped in a layup as Miami took a 16-point lead. Mazulla called a timeout. History was slipping from Boston’s reach. The home side needed a comeback in the game to complete an epic series comeback. Neither one materialized.
Derrick White, Boston’s savior in Game 6, brought the Celtics back to life at times, but the gap remained unclosed. At the end of the third quarter, the score was 66-76, another omen for the home team. In the 67 times Miami had gone into the final quarter of a playoff game with a lead of 10 or more, they had gone on to win. Monday was not going to prove the exception.
Miami came out even more focused and accurate in the final quarter, opening their lead to almost 20 points. To achieve the miracle, a miracle was needed. The Celtics started hoisting three-pointers in desperation. Al Horford landed the first one, but others failed to find the basket. What had promised to be the most exciting game of the season ended in a walkover. Butler scored 28 points, but the star of the game was Martin, with 26 points and 10 rebounds and a high percentage of three-pointer success.
The Celtics had already pulled themselves out of a hole in Game 7 of the Conference Semifinals against the Sixers in Boston with an exhibition by Tatum. The power forward broke the scoring record in a playoffs Game 7, which had just been set by Warriors star Stephen Curry. With 51 points, 13 rebounds and five assists, hitting 17 of 28 attempts from the field including six three-pointers from 10 attempts, Tatum left Philadelphia with few options. But whether because of his sprained ankle or Miami’s defense, he was unable to repeat the feat Monday, scoring 14 points in 42 minutes, behind Jaylen Brown’s 19 and White’s 18.
The Celtics appeared to have the hard work ahead of Game 7 on their home floor. They lost the first two games at home and were crushed by the Heat in the first in Miami. Boston had lost its “defensive identity,” according to Mazzulla, who took over the team on the eve of training camp when Ime Udoka was suspended for inappropriate workplace behavior.
“You know the season’s nine months long, and we just had a bad week. Sometimes you have a bad week at work,” Mazzulla said of going down 3-0 in the series after the Celtics pulled back to 3-2 with a Game 5 win. “And we obviously didn’t pick the best time to have a bad week, but we did.”
On Monday, when they looked like favorites, the Celtics had another bad day, failing to capitalize on the chance to emulate the Boston Red Sox, who in 2004 became the first Major League Baseball team to turn around a 3-0 deficit in the playoffs before being crowned champions for the first time in 86 years.
Miami, meanwhile, reached a seventh NBA Finals in the franchise’s 35-year history. The Denver Nuggets, Nikola Jokić, and Jamal Murray await them with the benefit of being more rested after dispatching the Lakers 4-0. The first two games will be played in Denver on Thursday and Sunday this week. This is the first time the Nuggets have reached the NBA Finals, another unprecedented matchup: historic, if you will.
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