The Miami Heat stunned the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals on Monday night to extend their remarkable postseason run with a roller-coaster, hold-your-breath, best-of-seven series win in Game 7, 103-84.
“I really believed in myself and this group of guys,” said Heat forward Jimmy Butler, who was named the series’ Most Valuable Player and scored 28 points in Game 7.
The Heat, the East’s no. The rebound at No. 8 has surprised everyone but them, as they face the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals starting Thursday. The Nuggets secured their first trip to the championship round a week ago by sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. The Heat are only the second eighth seed to reach the NBA Finals in the current playoff format, since the 1998-99 Knicks.
Not that it was easy. “Sometimes you have to suffer for the things you really want,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said during the postgame trophy presentation.
After the Heat won the first three games of the series, the Celtics regained their rhythm and won the next three, forcing a seventh and deciding game at home. Boston made a bid to become the first team to win an NBA playoff series after trailing 3-0. But Miami has avoided becoming a historical footnote/punchline by sinking into the bottomless well of its tenacity.
Even as the Heat struggled through the regular season, losing as much as they won, Spoelstra stuck to his approach.
Spoelstra said he realized the Heat would improve if they continued to focus on their daily work. There’s nothing particularly glamorous about it—meeting after disappointing losses, watching film, training hard.
“Those are gratifying experiences,” Spoelstra said before the series, “especially when you lose games and you get criticized for that. But you still try to come together and get it right.
About six months went by without the heat coming right. But over the past six weeks, they’ve shown all the promise and potential to make another appearance in the NBA Finals. It was the franchise’s seventh in its 35 seasons and second in the last four years.
“The ups and downs prepared us for these moments,” Heat All-Star center Bam Adebayo said of the Heat’s business of outlasting the Celtics during the series.
The Heat won the first two games of the series in Boston, then beat the Celtics in Miami in Game 3. Spoelstra said “a lot of inclusive things” are motivating his team, but declined to elaborate.
His players had more to come: They remembered being eliminated by the Celtics in the conference finals last season, especially disappointing as the Heat were in first place in the East and the streak went to seven games.
The heat almost blew it this time. Before Game 7, the Celtics entertained dreams of replicating the dramatic comeback of the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 American League Championship Series, when they came back from a 3-0 series deficit to eliminate the Yankees and make baseball history. The Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series to win their first championship since 1918.
But Miami was so determined and so tough, she saw the beauty in the struggle. Butler, the team’s prized two-way forward, imposed his will early in the series, while Adebayo was a defensive threat. But their supporting cast made the difference.
Caleb Martin, a small forward who stepped into the starting lineup for Games 6 and 7, was the Heat’s most consistent player throughout the series. He scored 26 points in Game 7 and made 11 of his 16 shots, including four 3-pointers. Gabe Vincent, the team’s starting point guard, played the final two games with a sprained ankle. And Duncan Robinson came off the bench to make timely 3-pointers.
On Monday, in front of a hostile crowd that was at fever pitch during player introductions, the Heat appeared intent on drowning out the noise, relying on their defense. The Celtics missed all 10 3-point attempts in the first quarter; In the second quarter, the Heat led by 17 points.
Boston cut into Miami’s lead when Martin went back to work, ending the third quarter with a turnaround baseline jumper. He opened the fourth quarter with his fourth 3-pointer, and the Heat’s lead was 13.
Adebayo was asked earlier in the series about the key to the team’s success.
“Hope,” he said. “Trusting each other. Hope to win. Hope to beat the number 1 team in the league. You know, hope is real, we have the will to win.
The Heat actually beat the No. 1 team, knocking off the Milwaukee Bucks, who had the league’s best regular-season record, in the first round of the playoffs. They defeated the fifth-seeded Knicks in six games in the second round to set up a series with Boston.
The Celtics looked to make another deep playoff run after losing to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals last season. But obstacles — both predictable and unexpected — stymied them even before they could get together for the preseason.
In the sudden absence of first-year Celtics head coach Ime Udoka last season, he stamped a defensive mindset on the team. But in September, less than a week into training camp, the Celtics suspended him for the season for a “violation of team policy.” Two people, who were not authorized to speak publicly, said Udoka had an affair with a female partner.
The entire situation cast an unpleasant shadow over the Celtics as they tried to focus on the upcoming season. “It’s been hell,” Marcus Smart, the team’s starting point guard and last season’s Defensive Player of the Year, said at the time.
Rather than going outside the organization to hire an experienced coach to replace Udoka, the team prioritized continuity by temporarily elevating assistant Joe Mazzulla to Udoka’s staff.
Mazzulla, 34, with only experience as a head coach at Fairmont State, a Division II program in West Virginia, was suddenly put in charge of an NBA team with championship expectations. It was a gamble that paid off by the All-Star break, when Boston had the league’s best record. The Celtics hired Mazzulla as their permanent head coach in February and officially cut ties with Udoka, who was hired by the Houston Rockets last month.
But Boston slipped to No. 2 in the East behind Milwaukee in the final weeks of the regular season and needed six games to eliminate the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. (The streak was unexpectedly long, forcing Janet Jackson to postpone a concert in Atlanta. Boston’s Jayson Tatum He publicly apologized to her.)
During the Celtics’ conference semifinal matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers, the pressure only increased on Mazzulla — and the team’s two stars, Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Tatum and Brown were inconsistent as the streak extended to seven games. Mazzulla was scrutinized for some of his lineup choices and his apparent aversion to calling timeouts in critical situations.
“Joe is learning like all of us,” Smart said during the series. “I know he’s killed a lot, right.”
But after Tatum scored 51 points in a series-clinching tour de force against the 76ers, the Celtics ran into the Heat, paying back with an eager and experienced opponent in mind.
The Heat traveled a long, hard road to reach the conference finals. They had to beat the Chicago Bulls in a play-in game to slip out of the postseason. They lost two rotation players, Tyler Hero and Victor Oladipo, to injuries in the first-round series against the Bucks.
But the Heat didn’t let up against the Celtics — not after a season of growth under Spoelstra, not with Butler filling his more unknown teammates with confidence, and not against an opponent that buried Miami’s championship dream a year ago.
“We’re going out there, we’re going to the hoop and playing basketball the right way,” Butler said, “knowing we’ve always got a chance.”