ORLANDO, Fla. — Long before he cemented his All-Star status and carved out a space for himself as one of the best young big men in the NBA, Jimmy Butler was telling anyone who would listen that Bam Adebayo was the heart and soul of the Miami Heat.
Butler was the Heat’s prized free agent, the player whose arrival signaled the formal shift from the Dwyane Wade era to the future.
Butler, however, made it clear from the start that Adebayo’s work ethic, character and relentlessness would be the traits that served as the support for whatever course Miami set this season.
That path runs to The Finals this week, for a showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers — thanks to Adebayo, whose energy and activity fueled a furious fourth-quarter blitz of the Boston Celtics Sunday night at AdventHealth Arena in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Adebayo scored a career-high 32 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and dished out 5 assists, overpowering the Celtics around the basket and really all over the floor in an emphatic 125-113 win that clinched the Heat’s first Finals appearance since 2014.
He joined Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James and Wade as the only players in franchise history to go for 30, 10 and 5 in a postseason game.
Two days after taking the blame for the Heat’s Game 5 loss, Adebayo refused to let them falter.
“He didn’t let anybody down. We played bad as a whole,” Butler said. “But I love the fact that he wants that pressure. He wants all of that on his shoulders. That’s why he’s the heart and soul of this team. He’s one of our leaders. That’s what stars do. He’s put himself on the map since he’s come into the league, and he’s huge for us, will continue to be that for us, and he knows how special he has to play in these next four wins.”
It’s hard to imagine the Heat being in this position without the work Adebayo has done all season. But he’s been particularly effective in this playoff run, playing like a man beyond his 23 years and relatively modest experience in the league.
Butler knew what he had in Adebayo when he joined the Heat.
Bam is the heart and soul of this thing. He’s going to be the reason that we win a championship.”
— Jimmy Butler
“I pay attention to it. I pay attention to a lot of guys — [that] just play hard,” he said. “Because whenever you want to admit it or not, that’s a talent. It’s hard to play hard for 48 minutes and I knew that he was going to be key in what we were trying to do. Talking to Coach Pat [Riley] and talking to Coach Spo and them saying what he can do, but then when you actually get out there with him it’s so different because he really can do it better than anybody can say that he can.
“I just love being around him. He’s a good dude. He cares about winning. He cares about his teammates. He’s the heart and soul of this thing, I keep saying it, but he’s going to be the reason that we win a championship.”
Adebayo would not be denied Sunday, not with all the was on the line.
“After the game, after Game 5, I put that on myself that my teammates would never — would never have that type of performance from me again,” Adebayo said. “For those 24 hours, I was locked in, and my family know how I get when I play bad, or especially we lose, I put that on my shoulders because I feel like I could have done something different. Tonight I did something different and came out being extra aggressive and just locked in. I made a promise to [Heat veteran Udonis Haslem]. When you all see UD, you ask him — I can’t tell you.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra can tell you all about Adebayo, who he says is introducing himself to the public this season. Just like Butler, Spoelstra loved that Adebayo wanted to shoulder the responsibility for Game 5. And he didn’t see the need for any pep talk to get Adebayo going for what was the biggest game of his young career.
“No. I loved it,” Spoelstra said. “I wanted to let him know and everybody know that it wasn’t his responsibility. All the greats have done that, take that responsibility, and then prove it the next opportunity. He is a great, elite competitor. I love everything that he’s about.”
The Heat knew Aebayo was about all the right things that fit their culture when they selected him with the 17th pick in the 2017 Draft after his lone season at Kentucky.
“Bam is one of the great competitors already in this association. He’s going to become one of the great winners in the history just because he’s so competitive,” Spoelstra said. “He moves the needle in every single way. You can’t put an analytic to his game and that’s probably why he was overlooked in college. He competes every single possession. He’s really growing into a leadership role. Way beyond his years. His offensive game is just growing daily. And he wants the responsibility, and he wants the accountability, and he isn’t afraid of putting that responsibility on his shoulders, and that’s what he did the other night.
“All the greats in the history of the game have done that before. It was not his fault. That was a collective effort, including the coaching staff, but he wanted to take a step forward and put it on his broad shoulders, and he backed that up tonight. He was sensational. And just from a competitive standpoint, all across the board.”
With the Heat in a tight slugfest deep into the fourth quarter Sunday, Adebayo simply turned his energy up to another level over and over again. The game was tied at 96, the Celtics surged ahead two more times, only to have Adebayo respond immediately in the moment.
The first time it was a drive and wicked two-handed dunk over Daniel Theis. The final time, with 6:16 to play, it was a jumper for a lead the Heat would never relinquish. They finished the final nine minutes of the game on 35-17 run, with Adebayo in the middle of the mix.
Again, Adebayo is all about winning. Whatever it takes, whenever it’s needed.
“It’s just one of those things, you know, coaches they want me to be better and they want me to do great things,” Adebayo said. “That’s the first time I got plays, back-to-back, back-to-back. Being in that moment and embracing it and taking over is a great thing for me. But at the end of the day, we got four more. Our business isn’t done yet.”
Not by a longshot. A favored Lakers team, with LeBron, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee are standing in the way and every bit as determined as the Heat.
Still, Butler made a point of not glossing over Adebayo’s breakout moment.
“That’s what stars do,” he said. “They find a way to win. They impact winning. He’s done it all year long, along with so many other guys. It’s like I say, any other game, you never know who it’s going to be on any given night because you can’t key in on one guy. We have so much trust in each other, and we have a lot of trust in Bam, and Bam makes sure that we win the game tonight.”
Adebayo was 14 when “The Heatles” were competing for and winning championships. He said he grew up watching and rooting for those teams, dreaming about one day making his way to the big stage.
The belief shown him, he said, is the reflection of the franchise’s belief in this team, with it’s surprisingly well-matched parts, and the collective grind that has led them to this final series of what seems like an endless season.
“He didn’t assemble this team for us to just play 82 games and go home,” Adebayo said of Riley’s masterplan. “That’s not the reason why he brought Jimmy here. That’s not the reason why he drafted me and not the reason why he got Andre [Iguodala] and Jae [Crowder] or Solo[mon Hil] and Derrick [Jones Jr.]. This is all preparation on how can we win a championship. I love this team he brought together because we are all underdogs. We’re here now.
“That’s been one of my dreams to be in the Finals. I grew up watching Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and LeBron in the Finals and it’s crazy that I get to walk on the Finals floor and actually play. It’s going to be a great moment for all of us. Pat wouldn’t have assembled this team unless he knew we had great things ahead of us. I appreciate Pat, the Riley family, Spo and his family. Everybody from the top to the bottom, I appreciate it just because they believed in us.”
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