The moment could have caused any NBA team to feel emotionally spent and physically exhausted. Not this Miami Heat team.
They have fought for every success they experienced. They have plowed through every failure they endured.
With the Miami Heat navigating those two themes through the entire regular season and playoff run, it only became fitting that Miami would advance to the NBA Finals for the second time in four years in this fashion.
They finished with a 103-84 win over the Boston Celtics on Monday in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, an outcome that meant more than just setting up an NBA Finals meeting against the Denver Nuggets beginning on Thursday (8:30 pm ET, ABC). The Heat ensured they stayed on the right side of NBA history. Instead of becoming the lone team to squander an 0-3 playoff series lead, the Heat became only the second squad ever to advance to the Finals as an eighth seed.
It seemed on brand this happened two days after the Heat suffered a 104-103 Game 6 loss to the Celtics in Miami. That outcome produced heartbreak after Celtics forward Derrick White converted on a putback with 0.2 seconds left. It also set Miami up to overcome its latest challenge – win a decisive Game 7 against the No. 2 seed in a hostile road environment.
The Miami Heat passed the test.
Everything comes together for Miami Heat in Game 7
Once again, Miami star Jimmy Butler competed in every way by stuffing the box score in points (28), rebounds (seven), assists (six) and steals (three). His shooting (12-for-28) somewhat mirrored his inefficient Game 6 (5-for-21). Yet, Butler still offset those numbers with prolific 3-point shooting (3-for-7), hustle plays and leadership.
Once again, Miami Heat forward Caleb Martin came through in the clutch. He had 26 points, while shooting 11-for-16 from the field and 4-for-6 from deep along with 10 rebounds. For anyone unfamiliar with the undrafted player, Martin fulfilled what he had done for the entire series with timely baskets.
Once again, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra showcased his value that he has shown consistently on the sideline for the past 15 years. Following the devastating Game 6 loss, Spoelstra stayed calm. He kept his players empowered by stressing to them about embracing this opportunity. He showed discipline by overseeing a team that stayed mostly consistent with their ball movement, shot selection and execution.
No doubt, the Celtics also played a part in this outcome. After clawing back from an 0-3 deficit, they occasionally played as if they had enough of a cushion in Game 7. After landing awkwardly on his left ankle in the first play of the game, Boston forward Jayson Tatum winced through pain as he finished with 14 points while shooting 5-for-13 from the field and 1-for-4 from deep. And the Celtics chose the wrong time to shoot terribly from 3-point range (9-for-42) when Miami fared so prolifically (14-for-28).
Nonetheless, Miami’s side of things represented the resiliency they have navigated for the past year.
They had lost last year in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics, no less. Miami could have advanced had Butler made a 3 on the final play or if the team itself didn’t appear so physically spent. For a franchise that values loyalty and continuity, however, the Heat made no major off-season changes. No retooling. No blowing up the roster.
It initially appeared that set up the Heat for more shortcomings. They scratched and clawed their way through the regular-season amid Butler nursing various injuries, Bam Adebayo having an elevated role and a Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro backcourt having mixed success. Despite those growing pains, the Heat still made the NBA Play-In tournament.
Miami Heat playoff run almost ended before it began
It seemed Miami’s playoff hopes ended before it even started. The Atlanta Hawks defeated a listless Heat team in the Play-In game. Miami only made the playoffs as an eighth seed after beating an ineffective Chicago Bulls squad in a second Play-In game.
On paper, it appeared the Miami Heat would just experience an early playoff exit against the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. Instead, the Heat unleashed their full potential. Butler played at an MVP level. Adebayo showcased his offensive and defensive versatility. The Heat’s veteran role players (Lowry, Kevin Love) and young studs (Herro, Martin, Duncan Robinson, Gabe Vincent) showcased their depth and team-first attitude. It helped that Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo missed 2½ games with a back injury, but Miami earned that first-round upset for reasons beyond health. The Heat carried the same formula in the second round against a blue-collar New York Knicks team. Miami topped New York with that mindset, while exerting its superior depth and experience.
That all set up Miami for its pivotal series against Boston. Through the first three games, Butler proved superior to Tatum with both his competitiveness and his clutch play. The Heat spent the first half of the series maxing out on their chemistry and hustle, while the Celtics tripped over themselves with a lack of consistent effort, team work and coaching adjustments. When the Celtics won three consecutive games, that had more to do with Boston finally playing up to its potential than Miami suddenly coasting. In a pivotal Game 7, it shouldn’t be surprising then that the Heat showed they had more what it takes to reach the next level.
They had demonstrated those qualities all season amid varying turbulent developments. Who knows if Miami can master its latest challenge against Denver, which boasts the league’s most complete team with a two-time MVP (Nikola Jokic), an emerging point guard (Jamal Murray) and lots of depth. But the Heat have a fighter’s chance by already proving they can overcome the improbable.