BOSTON – With the anticipation for Game 7 already bubbling, it’s still worth looking at five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 111-103 victory over the Celtics on Friday night in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference finals, a TD Garden outcome sending them all back to South Florida tied at 3-3:
1. From James to Jimmy: Heat star says no
When we wrote in this space Thursday about the parallels between Boston’s situation in this East finals series and the predicament the Celtics found themselves in 10 years ago, it was meant as a reminder that even when things look awfully good – a 3-2 lead with Game 6 at home – they can go horribly wrong.
We didn’t intend to summon the spirit of LeBron James to TD Garden.
That’s essentially what happened, though, with Jimmy Butler (LeButler?) in the spoiler role, denying the Celtics a trip to the Finals with an elimination-game performance for the ages. Back in 2012, it was James scoring 45 points to force the ECF to Miami for Game 7 and what became the Heat’s second consecutive Finals trip. This time, it was Butler posting the heady numbers – 47 points, nine rebounds, eight assists, four steals and a block – to give his team one more chance to get this right.
“I don’t like to compare teams. I get it,” said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, same guy, same job as when James went off a decade ago. “People can easily draw the comparisons between the two. “I want our guys just to embrace this moment. Jimmy Butler is a great competitor – he really is. You can misdefine him in a lot of different ways, but his competitive will is as high as anybody that has played this game.”
For two-and-a-half games, Butler’s sore right knee had stolen his explosiveness and bounce. One more outing like those and he’d have had a sea of unstructured time to rest and rehab for October.
Instead, he put up probably the best performance of his career, in an elimination game, on the road. Fact is, only one NBA player ever scored more with his back to the proverbial win-or-go-home wall, and that was Wilt Chamberlain dropping 50 on Boston in 1960. Butler’s not quite a legend like that, but he did polish his legacy a bit.
The 6-foot-7 wing, 11 years in and with his fourth team, scored 14 in the first quarter to set a tone and spark the Heat. He had 16 in the middle quarters, then closed with 17 in the fourth – when Boston’s big guns Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined to shoot a measly 1-for-2.
Butler gave some credit to an old pal from the Chicago Bulls, a fellow product of Marquette University who blazed some Heat trails for Butler to heed: Dwyane Wade. Wade called him up to make sure Butler’s head and game were in the right space.
“D-Wade never hits me until his voice is really, really needed. And it was,” Butler said. “I texted him and told him I appreciate him for it. Just to let me go out there, continue to build on that legacy and make sure that we win.”
Some will quibble even today that Butler doesn’t quite fit the “best player on a championship team” role. Heck, he didn’t even get voted to the All-NBA Third Team this season.
Not to worry. The guy getting paid $36 million this year put his teammates on his back. Their coach, too.
“It’s those winning, willful plays,” Spoelstra said. “Sometimes you just need your best players – and your guy – to make plays. He was able to do that in those moments of truth. When we really needed it, as their defense stepped up, as the game got to four, six, he found a way to get us a really important bucket.
“Then on the other end, he’s the definition of a two-way player in this Association. Takes on the toughest covers. I didn’t even see how many minutes he played. Probably close to the Chicago Bulls kind of minutes that he was accustomed to playing.”
Shoutout to Tom Thibodeau, in New York after coaching Butler in Chicago and Minnesota.
Other Heat players raved about Butler’s indispensable night. Boston coach Ime Udoka gave credit but bemoaned what his guys let Butler do, over and over. Then there was P.J. Tucker, the Miami strongman who got an early inkling of what was coming.
“It’s funny because before the game, me and Markieff [Morris] were talking with Jimmy, ‘Yo, we need 50. We need 50 tonight,” Tucker said. “He looked at us, didn’t say a word. He just nodded his head, kept going. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s about to play, he’s locked in.’”
2. Hard video to watch for the Celtics
Remember that football movie “Any Given Sunday” with Al Pacino as the raspy, driven, oddly eloquent coach? His voice might resonate in Boston’s locker room in the coming days, because as Pacino’s character said, “The inches we need are everywhere around us.”
There were a dozen or more readily invoked moments that, had they gone Boston’s way, might have flipped the whole thing. From Brown and Tatum not making the best decisions when Spoelstra sent hard defensive help to a night of lazy, lackluster passes across the board. From Brown bricking a pair of free throws with 2:18 to go, tied at 99-99, to oldster Al Horford having a crucial 3-point attempt rim out when his side was down five moments later. And so on, and so forth.
Never mind not matching Butler’s intensity. The Celtics didn’t come out and attack hard enough to respect their work in carving out the 3-2 series lead. Now it’s back to Miami, where yes, Boston has won twice but now faces an activated Heat squad that sees 48 minutes and some beatable green between them and a return trip to the Finals.
“I mean, we’re frustrated,” guard Derrick White said, “but if it was easy, it wouldn’t be us.”
3. Reports of Lowry’s demise were exaggerated, too
Butler seized center stage, but Miami point guard Kyle Lowry earned himself some spotlight with his best playoff showing too. The veteran pepper pot had 18 points and 10 assists, hitting four 3-pointers within his 5-for-14 shooting. Given how a nagging hamstring injury had either sidelined him entirely or restricted his effectiveness, Lowry was right behind Butler in rising to the occasion.
“I’m never going to make an excuse,” the thick-bodied floor leader said. “I played bad before. I have an opportunity to redeem myself. I got great guys in the locker room, great guys on our team, great organization, great people in my life who support me no matter what it is, ups, downs. They always say, ‘Just do you.’”
Said Spoelstra: “You can’t put an analytic to it, what it means to your team, of the feeling of calm and confidence that he can give everybody. That’s orchestrating our offense. It’s just those timely moments during key times of the game where the ball needs to go where it needs to go.
“He’s one of the all-time clutch players in this league. He just knows how to manage a game. You’re playing in an environment like this with the stakes, it’s great to just have a Hall of Fame quarterback that just kind of keeps everybody calm.”
Even if Lowry’s feistiness rarely seems calm on the outside.
4. Do we really want these kinds of plays?
OK, we get it, it’s part of the game. But should it be? When Miami’s Victor Oladipo slid over as a help defender to plant himself where Brown already was soaring – or nearly so – it led to a collision that could have had grave consequences.
As it was, that play with 12.1 seconds left snuffed Boston’s long-shot chance of coming back. Initially called a foul on Oladipo, with Boston down 108-103 and Brown headed to the line, the referees reviewed the play and flipped it. Suddenly it was Brown on the charge for his sixth personal foul. The Celtics never scored again, closing the game on the wrong side of the Heat’s 17-6 run.
If the infernal “take” foul is the play that most needs to be legislated out of the NBA game, then these types of last-millisecond risky maneuvers might need to go, too. Didn’t help that it came near the end of flop-filled night.
5. Miami can thank Draymond Green
It was Golden State’s loquacious center Green who went on the ‘Inside the NBA’ set on Thursday night to say he expected the Warriors to be facing Boston in the 2022 Finals. Naturally, that perked up the ears of the Heat players. Some more than others, but they all knew about it.
“We laughed,” Tucker said. “I thought it was funny because he knows better than anybody we still got to play the game.”
Said Bam Adebayo: “Everybody counted us out. Everybody thought the series was already over. I mean, that’s all the motivation we needed.”
So it’s on to Game 7, with no outside chatter necessary to fuel a thing. The Celtics will be determined to start better and avoid the turnovers that have been their bugaboo and barometer in this postseason. The Heat will be at home, eager to make up for already losing a couple in their building. The crew waiting to learn its Finals opponent, Golden State, will get two extra days of rest compared to whichever team survives Sunday (8:30 ET, ESPN).
That’s a thought that won’t cross any of the coaches’ or players’ minds in the moment, though.
“Look, we’re here,” Spoelstra said. “This is the way it should be with these two teams. It should have gone seven games. The margin for error on both sides is so small. There’s no two better words in pro sports than ‘Game 7.’”
Only difference is, the Celtics never wanted to hear them.
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