Jimmy Butler said it after Game 1: The Miami Heat would have to dig one game “out the mud” in their first-round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers.
His words proved prophetic Saturday. The Heat blitzed their way to an early 20-point lead, only to have to grind their way through the final, tense moments to secure a 124-115 win and a 3-0 series lead.
While the Pacers played frantically down the stretch, no doubt a product of expending the energy needed to come back from a large deficit, the Heat stayed cool. They didn’t rattle under the pressure, even with Pacers closing within a basket twice in the final four minutes.
For every punch the Pacers landed after halftime, the Heat fired back with a counter, or two. They salted the game away with clutch defensive stops and polished shooting from the free throw line, shooting 43-for-52 with Butler going 17-for-20.
“To tell you the truth, we talked about how we were going to have to get one out the mud,” Butler said. “We’re not going to make shots every night. But I think we did a great job on the defensive end and getting to the foul line. You step up, you make them and you get a little confidence. So you get some stops and get to the foul line. It wasn’t a part of the game plan but it helped us win tonight.”
Clinging to a 114-112 lead with 1:40 to play, the Heat closed the game on a 10-3 run.
Butler was at the center of it all, as expected, as was his All-Star counterpart Bam Adebayo and veteran point guard Goran Dragic. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra went with veterans — 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder, rotating on an offense-defense substitution pattern with rookie sharpshooter Tyler Herro — as his closing lineup.
Spoelstra’s expression never changed down the stretch, not for anything his team did or did not do, and mostly because he wasn’t shocked to see the Pacers rally after the Heat lit them up for 74 points in the first half.
“You have to be objective about this,” Spoelstra said. “This is a very good team over there. And we made a bunch of 3s in the first half, offense looked good. But they still scored 56. They have capable guys that break you down off the dribble and shoot the 3, which makes it tough. So you have to expect it to be a full 48-minute game, if not longer. And you’ve got to compete all the way through. And our guys had the mindset, even though Indiana made a big run in that second half, we were expecting it to be tough.”
The Heat proved to be up to the task in every way. They had four players — Butler, Adebayo, Dragic and Herro — score 20 or more points for only the second time in Heat playoff history, the first time coming in the 2012 Finals.
And when they needed it most, Butler and Adebayo in particular, came up with the rebounds, blocks and critical plays to put the Pacers away.
As Butler mentioned after Adebayo’s monster Game 2 effort, one that wasn’t necessarily reflected in the stat sheet, it’s the impact on winning that often makes the biggest difference.
Adebayo had both this time, finishing with 22 points and 5 assists. But it was the 11 rebounds, none bigger than his final three (one offensive and two defensive), that could wind up being colossal plays in this series if the Heat close it out Monday night.
“His biggest moments came down the stretch on both ends,” Spoelstra said. “Those rebounds were big time. We needed those extra relief opportunities because they jammed us up a couple times and forced us into a couple turnovers. Those relief points and those free throws, were key. And obviously, those rebounds defensively were Udonis[Haslem]-esque.”
There’s a reasons Adebayo looks so comfortable in those high-pressure moments in his first full season as a starter. Butler said all of the youngsters on this Heat roster came with self-starter kits and the requisite chips on their shoulders required to compete at this level. And they are past the point of needing to prove anything to anyone.
“Hell, Bam don’t need any more confidence,” Butler said. “He knows he’s one of the top players in this league, And he’s only going to continue to get better because he works and he cares and he studies the game. I always tell y’all, and I mean it, he’s the heart and soul behind this team, he’s the one that makes us go.
“There’s a huge difference whenever he’s on the floor and off the floor, on both ends of it. So he don’t have anything to prove to anybody. He knows who he is. He’s a lot like myself and everybody else in that locker room and I’d say he doesn’t care what anybody thinks, he’s going go out there and do his job to help us win.”
Adebayo’s battling one of the league’s top shot blockers in Pacers center Myles Turner, giving up a couple of inches and years of experience, even though he’s dictating the action on both ends of the floor.
“I feel like the player that I am, it’s hard to take me out,” Adebayo said. “And that’s because I do a lot of things so well, not trying to pat myself on the back or anything. But because I screen well, I get guys open and it doesn’t always have to be about scoring with me. I mean, in Game 2 I had seven points but everybody said I had the biggest impact on the game, so it’s little stuff like that.
“I came into the league as a defender and an energy guy, so when my shot is not falling and my offense is not going, I just bank on my defense and my effort.”
When the Pacers cranked up the intensity on both ends after halftime, the Heat had to lean on their defense and effort. They had to lean on the entire group, youngsters and old heads alike.
Now they’re sitting on a clear path to the next round, knowing well that teams that go up 3-0 in a best-of-seven series are 136-0 all-time.
“Our approach is the same,” Butler said.”We don’t worry about any other team, or what teams have done in the past. We’re who we are. We can’t worry about what the stats say. We don’t even run like that here. We know we’ve got one more to win and we know we’re capable of it. But it’s definitely going to be a dogfight next game.”
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