BOSTON — The Miami Heat would not be the one in 150-1. They blew a 3-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference finals, losing Game 6 in heartbreaking fashion. They had to play Game 7 in a very loud TD Garden against a more talented opponent that had, seemingly, found itself in winning three straight.
But #HeatCulture is a real thing, and winning four straight games is not easy. The Boston Celtics still haven’t won four straight since Feb. 6-12, because the Heat came to TD Garden on Monday and left with a stunningly dominant, 103-84, Game 7 victory. They are the second No. 8 seed (and first in a full season) to reach the NBA Finals.
Series MVP Jimmy Butler recovered from a rough Game 6 and led all scorers with 28 points, adding seven rebounds, six assists and three steals. The Celtics perimeter shooting did not recover from a rough Game 6, when they had their worst 3-point performance of the season (7-for-35, 20.0%). Game 7 was tied for their second worst 3-point shooting game of the season (9-for-41, 21.4%).
Here are some notes, quotes, numbers and film from a game that sent the Heat to the Finals for the seventh time in franchise history …
1. Fueled by devastation
In 2013, the San Antonio Spurs had a championship taken away from them in the final seconds of regulation in Game 6 of The Finals. They were up two with the ball and 20 seconds left, but Kawhi Leonard missed a free throw, Chris Bosh rebounded a LeBron James miss, Ray Allen hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history, and the Heat won in overtime.
The Spurs were devastated, but they managed to recover over the next 48 hours, and they had a chance to tie Game 7 in the final minute. A year later, they dominated that same opponent in the 2014 Finals.
The Heat and coach Erik Spoelstra were on the winning side of that 2013 miracle. Ten years later, they suffered similar devastation at the end of Game 6 of this series. They led as the buzzer sounded, but Derrick White’s tip-in was in the air, and it sent this series to Game 7.
“We felt like we did all the right things,” Spoelstra said of his team’s Game 6 performance. “Then to come up short, that could puncture a team’s spirit. But instead that just drove us to more resolve to try to get the job done.”
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) May 30, 2023
The Heat started this game slow, scoring just four points on their first 10 possessions of the first quarter. But the offense was eventually uglier on the other end of the floor, the Heat took the lead for good late in that first quarter, and they never looked back.
We thought the comeback story of this series was the Celtics possibly becoming the first team in NBA history to win a series it trailed 3-0. Instead, it was the Heat bouncing back from a brutal loss to win Game 7 on the road.
“I think it just sheds a lot of light on how resilient our group is,” Caleb Martin said, “how mentally engaged that we are and how positive we are mentally, no matter how the season has been going.”
2. Two-way … star
Butler received five of the nine MVP votes. The other four went to an undrafted guy who the Heat signed to a two-way contract late in the summer of 2021. The twin that the Charlotte Hornets chose not to keep.
Less than a year after signing that two-way contract, Martin was in the Heat’s playoff rotation. But he was DNP’d in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics. Exactly one year later, he scored 26 points on 11-for-16 shooting in another Game 7.
Caleb Martin averaged 19.3 points in the series, shooting an amazing 60% from the field, including 22-for-45 (49%) from 3-point range. He has an effective field goal percentage of 68.4% in the playoffs, the best mark among 47 players with at least 100 field goal attempts and up from 54.0% in the regular season.
For the Heat, Martin’s performance is a testament to the work he puts in and his ability to play his best no matter the circumstances.
“If you’re a real competitor, it’s in your soul,” Spoelstra said, “and that’s what Caleb is, he’s a competitor.”
Being a competitor is one thing. But Martin was making shots, and not just ones created by his higher-profile teammates. The Heat lived late in the shot clock for most of this series, and Martin bailed them out of tough situations countless times, either making a big shot from beyond the arc or forcing his way to the rim for a deft finish.
In Game 7, he took his shot-making to a new level, hitting a contested turnaround over Al Horford…
… taking Derrick White off the dribble, spinning away from the help and draining another fadeaway from the baseline…
… and draining a huge, side-step 3-pointer when the Heat’s lead had been cut to seven at the end of the third quarter…
“That might have surprised y’all,” Butler said of Martin’s shot-making. “To us, he’s a hell of a player, hell of a defender, playmaker, shot-maker, all of the above.
“Everybody has seen Caleb work on those shots day in, day out. It doesn’t surprise us. We have seen it every single day. I’m so proud and happy for him. I think he’s going to be even better in the next round, and I don’t think he’s going to be a surprise to anybody any longer.”
Martin was a scorer in college, but his 9.6 points per game this season made for his highest average in his four NBA seasons.
“I feel like that type of style never leaves you,” he said of his college scoring prowess. “I knew it was going to come out at some point, but it was just a great feeling that it came out in a Game 7 on the road like this. It just shows you what I’m capable of, and I just want to continue to stay locked in. I knew how they were going to guard me throughout the series, and I just want take advantage of that.”
3. Brutal timing
Injuries happen, and sometimes they happen at the worst moment. Like the first play of Game 7, when Jayson Tatum sprained his left ankle.
One of the most durable stars in the league over the last few years, and a guy who had scored 51 points in Game 7 of the conference semifinals just 15 days earlier, was hobbled for the rest of the night. Well, the rest of the season.
“It swelled up and it was just frustrating that I was kind of like a shell of myself,” Tatum admitted afterward. “It was tough to move. Just frustrating. Especially it happening on the first play.”
Tatum had averaged a series-high 27.2 points through the first six games, but was limited to 14 points on 5-for-13 shooting, even though he played almost 42 minutes. The Celtics were down 11 at the half, and they didn’t even look to their star on their first couple of possessions of the third quarter.
“Obviously, you can see he wasn’t himself,” Marcus Smart said. “He wasn’t as explosive. The ankle was really killing him.”
The Celtics have another All-NBA player on their roster, one who’s eligible to sign a five-year, $295 million dollar extension this summer. But with the season on the line, Jaylen Brown wasn’t able to step up. He shot 8-for-23 (including 1-for-9 from 3-point range) and committed eight turnovers.
“Just a terrible game, when my team needed me most” Brown said of his performance on Monday. “My team turned to me to make plays and I came up short, I failed. It’s tough. I give credit to Miami, but just a terrible job.”
4. No busting the zone
For the second time in this series, the Celtics were undone by the Heat’s zone defense. In Game 2, the zone helped Miami come back from two different double-digit deficits. And in Game 7, it kept Boston down.
The Heat played zone for most of the second and fourth quarters. And according to Synergy tracking, the Celtics scored just 19 points on 34 zone possessions (0.56 per) on Monday. They had one really good zone possession, with multiple drives through the seams leading to an in-rhythm 3-pointer for Brown…
But those kinds of possessions were few and far between and the Celtics often shot off minimal ball movement. They also missed some good looks.
The offensive struggles affected the Celtics on the other end of the floor.
“When we’re not playing well offensively and shots aren’t falling,” Malcolm Brogdon said, “I think we lose trust. I think that’s how the game works. But I think we lose trust and it shows, and then we have more breakdowns on defense because we’re not making shots, because we stopped moving the ball.”
For the series total, the Celtics’ half-court offense was far less efficient against the zone (0.76 points per possession) than it was against man-to-man (1.05), according to Synergy.
Five years ago (2017-18), no team played more than 223 possessions of zone over the course of the regular season. This season, the Heat played 1,453 possessions, the most for any team in 17 years of Synergy tracking. They’ve already 211 possessions in the playoffs, 144 more than any other team.
And now, zone defense has them in The Finals.
5. The switch was flipped
A reminder: The Heat were outscored by 26 points over their 82 regular-season games. Now, they’ll be playing for the championship.
Only one other team in NBA history has reached The Finals after getting outscored in the regular season. That was the 1958-59 Lakers, who did it in an eight-team league, winning just six playoff games to get there. (Those Lakers lost 4-0 in the Finals to the Celtics in what was the first Lakers-Celtics championship series.) That was also the only other team with a negative regular-season point differential to win multiple playoff series.
The Heat are the first to win three.
The next series should be the toughest one yet. The Denver Nuggets are 12-3 in these playoffs, and they’re 8-0 at Ball Arena.
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