BOSTON – As the Heat bus rumbled down Causeway St., Kevin Love and Udonis Haslem sat alongside each other in silence. It had been less than 48 hours since Miami’s season was pushed to the brink, since the Heat were floored by a Derrick White buzzer-beating putback that forced Miami into an elimination game. During challenging times, Love and Haslem, two of the team’s elder statesmen, liked to discuss things that needed to be said to sharpen the team’s focus. On Monday, there was no need.
“You could feel it,” Love told SI. “These guys were ready.”
Miami is headed back to the Finals, and really—who saw this coming? Inside TD Garden, the atmosphere before tip-off was one of a coronation. No NBA team had ever rallied from a 3–0 deficit to win a playoff series. Boston was one win away from doing it. Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo sat courtside. Isaiah Thomas looked on from a suite off the floor. Kevin Millar, the face of the ’04 Red Sox comeback against the Yankees, prepared a video.
The stage was set.
And the Heat bulldozed it over.
Final score: Miami 103, Boston 84 in a game that was exactly that close. The Heat led by seven at the end of the first quarter. It was 11 at the half. After Boston chipped it to ten at the end of the third quarter Miami needed 70 seconds in the fourth to expand it to 17.
“We have a bunch of guys that just love competition,” said Erik Spoelstra. “Just drop us off anywhere and compete for it. Put ourselves out there, open to all the criticism and everything. But hey, it's got to happen between these four lines. We don't care what the rest of the world is saying. We don't care who is criticizing who. You've got to line up between these four lines and let's figure this out.”
This was about Jimmy Butler. Butler has logged heavy minutes this postseason, including 47 in Game 6. With Tyler Herro out, his role in the offense has increased. After Game 2, Butler admitted Miami didn’t really have a late-game offense. “It's kind of like give me the ball and move,” Butler said. It was reasonable to wonder what Butler had left.
Turned out, plenty. Butler finished with 28 points. He collected seven rebounds. He sliced through the Boston defense and handed out six assists. When the Celtics gave him the three, Butler took it, finishing 3-for-7 from beyond the arc. “Jimmy being Jimmy,” said Bam Adebayo. With his team needing confidence, Butler gave it to them.
“The confidence level that he can create for everybody on the roster is incredible,” said Spoelstra. “I've almost never seen anything like it, but I have. But he's special because he does it on both ends of the court. He can play 48 [minutes] if you need him to, and then he just has a way, also, that he has a hard edge. He's gnarly, but he knows how to have a soft touch to give somebody some confidence at the right time. That's the special gift that he has.”
This was about Caleb Martin, the undrafted, ex-two-way player who came a vote short of winning the NBA’s inaugural Larry Bird Award for conference finals MVP—the award for winning the conference is named after ex-Celtic Bob Cousy so for Boston, double ouch—but was unquestionably the breakout star. Martin averaged 19.6 points in this series. In Game 7, he scored 26. He was 11-of-16 from the floor and 4-of-6 from three-point range. Whenever the Celtics looked like they were starting to close the gap, Martin was there to widen it.
“If you're a real competitor it's in your soul, and that's what Caleb is, he's a competitor,” said Spoelstra. “Every bit the competitor that you talk about with Jimmy or Bam. Caleb is a competitor. … it's like his last breath on every single possession, and I love the guy for that.”
This was a little about the Celtics. On the first play, Jayson Tatum rolled an ankle. “I was kind of like a shell of myself [after],” Tatum said. Malcolm Brogdon, who has been battling a forearm issue that kept him out of Game 6, was a minus-15 in seven minutes in Game 7. Boston, a three-point happy team all season, was 9-of-42 from deep. And whenever the Celtics missed, Miami made them pay.
“The Heat played better than we did,” said Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla. “And that's it.”
This was about the Heat, not wanting to lose and not wanting to lose to Boston. “[Heat president] Pat [Riley] feels a certain way about Boston,” said Spoelstra. “So I make sure everybody feels a certain way about Boston.”
Entering the play-in tournament, Miami wanted the Celtics. They wanted a rematch of last season’s conference finals. They wanted revenge. As the No. 7 seed at the end of the regular season, everything lined up. Then the Heat lost to Atlanta. The focus shifted. It was no longer about beating Boston. It was about keeping the season going.
And they did. They beat Chicago in an elimination game. They battered Milwaukee in five games. They ended New York’s season in six. After losing three straight to Boston, the Heat’s confidence could have been rattled. It wasn’t. In the team’s film session on Sunday, Spoelstra felt the same resolve he felt after the loss to Atlanta.
“It's that underdog mentality,” said Adebayo. “I know we say it. I know people think it's a joke. But when you go through what we went through this whole season, ups and downs, people talking good and bad about us, writing us off, hearing all that noise, and to be four games away from a championship just speaks volume to, one, we never quit, and two, everybody rallied together.”
Miami will be underdogs again, against Denver, and will have to learn how to slow Nikola Jokic and prevent Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. from having big nights. “We have two days to figure that out,” said Butler. For now, the Heat can celebrate not being on the wrong side of history. And as just the second No. 8 seed to advance to the Finals, a chance to make some.