The Miami Heat stunned the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals Monday night, snapping a series-best roller coaster in Game 7, 103-84, to extend their stellar postseason streak.
“I had great faith in myself and in this group of guys,” said Heat forward Jimmy Butler, who was named the Series MVP. Scored 28 points in the seventh game.
The Heat, whose emergence as the No. 8 seed in the East appears to have caught everyone but them by surprise, will take on the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals starting Thursday. The Nuggets secured their first trip to the championship round by completing a sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals a week earlier. The Heat is only the eighth seed, after the 1998-99 Knicks, to reach the NBA Finals under the current playoff format.
Not that it was easy. “Sometimes you have to suffer because of the things you really want,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said during the Cup postgame presentation.
After the Heat won the first three games of the series, the Celtics picked up their rhythm and won the next three to force a seventh and deciding game at home. Boston was trying to become the first team to win an NBA playoff series after falling behind, 3-0. But Miami avoided becoming a historical footnote/punch punch by plunging into the bottomless well of perseverance.
Even when the Heat were scribbling 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 remained focused on their day-to-day work. There was nothing particularly exciting about it – getting together after disappointing losses, watching a movie, and working out hard.
“These are satisfying experiences,” Spoelstra said earlier in the series, “especially when you’re losing games and getting criticized for it. But you’re still able to pull together and try to do it right.”
The Heat went about six months without getting it right. But over the past six weeks, they have unleashed all their promise and potential to make another NBA Finals appearance. It’s the seventh in 35 seasons and the second in the past four years.
“The ups and downs have prepared us for these moments,” Heat all-star center Bam Adebayo said during the series, as the Heat began their business by beating the Celtics.
The Heat won the first two games of the series in Boston, then defeated the Celtics in Miami in Game 3. Spoelstra said “a lot of pent-up stuff” was fueling his team but declined to elaborate further.
His players were better prepared: They recalled being knocked out by the Celtics in the Conference Finals last season, an especially disappointing exit because the Heat was the #1 Eastern seed and the series went seven games.
The heat almost set her off this time. Before Game 7, the Celtics dreamed of repeating the dramatic Boston Red Sox comeback in the 2004 American League Championship Series, when they made baseball history by coming back from a 3-0 series deficit to eliminate the Yankees. The Red Sox then swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series to win their first championship since 1918.
But Miami was very resolute and very tough, finding beauty in the struggle. Butler, the team’s two-way talent, imposed his will early in the series, while Adebayo was a defensive threat. But their supporting cast made all the difference.
A small forward who moved into the starting lineup for Games Six and Seven, Caleb Martin was the Heat’s most consistent player throughout the series. He had 26 points in Game 7 and made 11 of his 16 shots, including four 3-pointers. Gabe Vincent, the team’s starting point guard, has played the last two games with ankle injuries. And Duncan Robinson came off the bench to make a timely 3-pointer.
On Monday, in front of a hostile crowd that was in a fever during the players’ introduction, the Heat seemed intent on cutting out the noise by relying on their defense. The Celtics missed all three-point attempts in the first quarter. In the second quarter, the Heat led by as many as 17 points.
Boston had cut into Miami’s lead when Martin went to work again, closing out the third quarter with baseline cover. He opened the fourth quarter with his first four three-pointer of the game, and the Heat’s lead returned to 13.
Adebayo is asked earlier in the series about the key to the team’s success.
He said: “Believe.” Believing in each other. Believing we can win. Believing we can beat the first team in the league. You know, the faith is real, and we have the will to win.”
The Heat had already beaten the #1 team, upsetting the Milwaukee Bucks, who had the best record in the league in the regular season, in the first round of the playoffs. They beat the fifth-seeded Knicks in six games in the second round to set up their series with Boston.
The Celtics figured to make another playoff run after losing to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals last season. But obstacles – both expected and unforeseen – held them back even before they met in pre-season.
Topping the list was the surprising absence of Emi Odoka, who made his defensive-minded imprint on the team as a first-year Celtics head coach last season. But in September, less than a week before training camp, the Celtics suspended him for “team policy violations.” Two people who were briefed on the matter, who were not allowed to speak about it publicly, said that Udoka had an affair with a female subordinate.
The whole situation cast an unwelcome toll on the Celtics as they sought to focus on the next season. “It was hell,” Marcus Smart, the team’s starting point guard and defensive player of the year last season, said at the time.
Rather than go outside the organization to hire an experienced coach as Udoka’s replacement, the team prioritized continuity by temporarily promoting Joe Mazzola, who had been an assistant on Udoka’s staff.
Mazzola, 34, whose only previous coaching experience was at Vermont State, a Division II West Virginia program, has been put in charge of an NBA team with championship prospects. It was a gamble that seemed to pay off by breaking into the All-Stars, when Boston had the best record in the league. The Celtics named Mazzola their permanent coach in February and formally severed ties with Odoka, whom the Houston Rockets named as their head coach last month.
But Boston faltered during the final weeks of the regular season, falling to the second seed in the East behind Milwaukee, and needing six games to eliminate the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. (The series ran so unexpectedly long that Janet Jackson had to postpone her concert in Atlanta. Jason Tatum in Boston He publicly apologized to her.)
The pressure only mounted on Mazzola — and on the team’s star players, Tatum and Jaylen Brown — during the Celtics’ conference semifinal matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers. Tatum and Brown were inconsistent as the series stretched to seven games. Mazzulla has been scrutinized for some of his line-up choices and for his apparent aversion to calling time-outs in critical situations.
“Joe is learning, just like all of us,” Smart said during the series. “I know he was killed a lot, right.”
But after Tatum scored 51 points in a solid, series-clinching inning against 76, the Celtics faced the Heat, a smart, experienced opponent with recovery in mind.
The Heat has come a long and hard road just to make it to the Conference Finals. They had to defeat the Chicago Bulls in the game play to sneak into the postseason. They proceeded to alternately lose two players, Tyler Hero and Victor Oladipo, to injuries in their first-round series with the Bucks.
But the Heat wasn’t about to back down against the Celtics—not after a season of growth under Spoelstra, not with Butler filling his nameless teammates with confidence, not against an opponent who buried Miami’s championship dream a year ago.
Butler said, “We go out there and play basketball the right way, knowing we always have a chance.”
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