1. The first two quarters of this one qualified as an incredible feat of damage control.
It’s never surprising to see somewhat muddy offense in the opening minutes of such a high-leverage game such as this one. That’s normal. But slowly, Boston pulled themselves out of that muck, transitioning their offense from requiring mid-range makes to getting into the paint at a rate higher than Miami has allowed since Game 1. Things took a little longer on Miami’s side, never quite looking like the best version of themselves but getting enough shots to fall to stay within striking range.
With Jayson Tatum (31 points on 21 shots) hitting from everywhere but behind the arc, the Celtics were up by as much as 11 but only four at the break for one reason and one reason only – Miami shot 9-of-15 from three. Many of those were good looks as the Celtics miscommunicated some coverages and left shooters open, but makes are makes and with Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent and Max Strus combining for seven of those nine threes – and Boston 3-of-15 from deep on their own side – the score looked much better than the actual game felt. Credit Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, both struggling to score, with seven combined offensive boards as they found a way to make an impact despite clean opportunities being tough to come by. Miami was proverbially hanging around, but more was going to be required.
Getting into the bonus and drawing a fourth foul on Jaylen Brown early in the third quarter helped, the HEAT still right there, down two or four or two again. The lead ballooned out to 13 at one point and Miami again mitigated the damage, in large part thanks to being in the bonus, getting it down to seven after three. Still right there, with Boston’s offense started to slow down as it often does down the stretch, still staring at the hump from the down slope.
Right over that hump in the fourth, Duncan Robinson making huge plays to get Miami up by one. That was the moment, and almost instantly it was ripped away as the Celtics jumped back up seven within a single minute. Then 10, even as Robinson kept making shots, jumpers and cuts – a 16-5 run in all. Miami wasn’t done, and neither was Butler, pushing his way towards the rim over and over and getting to the line to get right back in it. And then there was another moment, this time Butler getting fouled by Al Horford behind the arc with 2.1 seconds left, down two – and he iced them all. Up one, three seconds left. The NBA Finals were right there, three seconds away.
Boston timeout. Marcus Smart three. A miss. And then there was Derrick White, putting the ball back in as time expired. Boston wins, 104-103. The series goes back to Boston for Game 7.
2. Jimmy Butler (24 points on 21 shots in 47 minutes) was having one of the worst games of his career, at least as far as shooting the ball. Whatever the reasons behind – we do have to credit the Celtics for holding up remarkably well on switches, staying in front of the ball and trying not to foul, and defending as straight up as possible at the rim – he was 3-of-19 at one point in a way we have rarely, if ever, seen from him. That’s the postseason, working out the extremes from everyone in both directions.
But he was still the man they needed him to be in the fourth, even if it wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing as his clutch performances against the Milwaukee Bucks. This was a desperate Butler, doing everything he could in the face of everything going against him. He crashed the glass. He willed himself into the paint. He willed himself to the free-throw line. And he very, very nearly, microscopically nearly, willed Miami to a win on a night, very much like Game 7 last year, when it looked like they weren’t going to.
As the Celtics struggled to close the game once again – Erik Spoelstra made the gutsy call to close those final minutes in zone – Butler found a version of himself that could be what Miami needed. If not for White and the final, fateful ticks of the clock, it would have been enough.
3. Caleb Martin (21 points on 13 shots) continues to be a monster for the HEAT, playing nearly perfect basketball when it comes to what is asked of a mid-usage role player. With the offense looking a little disjointed in the opening minutes, Martin kept the train on the tracks with a number of hard drives, right into contact, and open threes, scoring nine of the HEAT’s first 24 points and 12 in the first quarter on 5-of-6 shooting.
Miami hardly ever runs anything specifically for Martin. In many of the possessions where he makes a play are those where nothing is else working, actions are flattened out and the shot clock is shrinking. That’s been Martin time, and it continued into the third quarter as he kept hitting one big shot after another, saving a Miami offense that looked like it couldn’t get much of anything going at times, and saving the game to that point – with 21 through three – as the main reason the deficit wasn’t far greater.
On the opposite end of that spectrum, having Vincent’s (15 points, 3-of-6 from three) willing hands back in the lineup proved beneficial early in the clock as he’s been hitting early jumpers and making early drives when the coverage allows it since the Milwaukee series. Miami isn’t anywhere close at the end if Vincent and Martin aren’t helping them along to a 47 percent night from three.
The win conditions all series have been threes and turnovers. Miami won both those categories with room to spare, hitting seven more threes and committing seven fewer turnovers. They just weren’t the win conditions tonight.