Since Friday night’s win in Boston to take a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals, the energy around the Miami Heat shifted ever so slightly. They knew they had the Celtics, the no. 2 seed in the East and defending conference champions, on the ropes as the series went to Miami. Sunday night’s game wasn’t a must-win, but the Heat didn’t get this far — so improbably — by resting on laurels or taking wins for granted.
So in the days, hours and minutes leading up to Sunday’s Game 3 tip-off, coaches and players were… what’s the best word?
Bam Adebayo, asked about playing his friend Jayson Tatum in the conference finals for the third time in four seasons, briskly claimed it didn’t matter. He wears green, Bam said, and I wear red. Coach Erik Spoelstra cut off reporters’ questions on Saturday and Sunday– not because he was being rude, but because he wanted to get back to scheming as soon as possible.
The Heat smelled blood in the water. Sensed a chance to stomp out whatever hopes the Celtics had left. Lose and the series would still be 2-1 with another home game to take a commanding 3-1 lead as the series goes back to Boston. But win? Oh, that’s would be it, wouldn’t it? A 3-0 lead is nearly impossible to overcome, especially against a Heat team that tends not to beat itself. At least not during this historic playoff run.
The Heat did not lose. They did not merely win, either. They buried the Celtics, 128-102, steadily increasing their lead to as many as 33 under a mountain of 3-pointers (19 in all), dunks and forced turnovers (15 for 18 points).
“That was a solid, mature, professional approach,” Spoelstra said. “There’s a lot of pent-up stuff here, and we’re getting closer. But we still have to finish this off.”
This series isn’t technically over, but it was hard to leave Kaseya Center and not feel like it is. In league history, teams with a 3-0 lead are 149-0 in the series.
After dropping the first two games at home, Boston went back to a small-ball lineup with guard Derrick White replacing center Robert Williams III to start the game. The Celtics moved with more verve, switched on defense more easily and took a three-point lead midway through the opening quarter. That would be their last lead of the night. The Heat ended the period on a 9-0 run and took an eight point lead into the second quarter.
By halftime, that lead climbed to 61-46. Duncan Robinson helped break the game open in the second quarter with a lob to Bam Adebayo for a one-handed dunk, a driving layup, an assist to a Caleb Martin 3 and an on-the-break 3-pointer of his own.
In the third quarter, Jimmy Butler targeted White and punished him on switches until Celtics coach Joe Mazulla had to take him out. When Grant Williams replaced him, Adebayo skied over him for another one-handed dunk.
Throughout the night, Marcus Smart frustratedly picked up a technical, Jaylen Brown air-balled a 3-pointer and hung his head and Jayson Tatum missed 12 of his 18 shots. The Celtics signaled surrender when they emptied the bench at the start of the fourth.
“I don’t even know where to start,” Brown said. “We can point fingers. But, in reality, it’s just embarrassing.”
The Heat did not need a huge Butler game (16 points, eight rebounds, six assists, two steals in 31 minutes) or even a ton of production from Adebayo (13 points, three rebounds). Instead, they got contributions from everywhere on the roster, striking the Celtics from all angles. Martin had 18 points, Gabe Vincent hit pull-up jumper after pull-up jumper and finished with a game-high 29 points. Robinson has 22. Max Strus had 10.
This was a total team effort from a hive-mind that remembered the sting of the way last season ended, when Butler’s 3-pointer bounced off the rim in Game 7 and the Celtics survived and advanced to the Finals. The Heat aren’t only on the verge of avoiding such disappointment, they are on track to avoid a Game 7 altogether.
“We got the matchup we wanted,” Martin said. “There’s nothing like a second crack at it.”
While Miami was the more composed, urgent and intentional team, there are moments when the emotions trickle out. Like Martin screaming after another Heat scoring run in the second half, Adebayo staring down Grant Williams after a dunk or Butler mockingly calling timeout in front of Celtics center Al Horford, who crouched down and made the same timeout motion during a Celtics run early in Game 2. Boston has been outscored by 40 points in this series since that moment.
This matters to the Heat, and they are playing like it.
“We’ll decompress tomorrow,” Spoelstra said, adding that the emotions from last season have been a factor in this series.
“But we’re gonna get our minds right to finish this thing off.”