How Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat made the Celtics great

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics
Miami Heat v Boston Celtics / Maddie Schroeder/GettyImages

The Boston Celtics are up 3-0 in the 2024 NBA Finals, and they will inevitably be hoisting a league-leading 18th banner.

The Celtics, in the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown era starting in 2017, have been to the conference finals six out of eight years, but it took them all this time to be in a position to win their first NBA finals since 2008. The question is, why?

Well, the teams that knocked out the Celtics since 2017 had generational players: LeBron James with the Cleveland Cavaliers (2017 and 2018), Giannis Antetokounmpo with the Milwaukee Bucks (2019), Kevin Durant with the Brooklyn Nets (2021), and Stephen Curry with the Golden State Warriors (2022). When their teams knocked out the Celtics, it was not surprising, it was expected. 

Without the Miami Heat's rivalry, the Boston Celtics may have never been pushed to the brink of a championship.

Then there was Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat, a player and a team who embodied the thrilling unpredictability of the NBA. Butler led the Heat to victory over the Celtics in 2020 and 2023, both times as the underdog. In 2020, during the bubble, the Celtics lost to the Heat in six games, with Butler averaging 19.0 points per game. Despite not having his best series, Butler was instrumental down the stretch in Miami's four wins.

Although it was a disappointing series for the Celtics, Miami's four wins only came by 23 total points, and neither Tatum nor Brown developed into the players they are today.

2023 arrived, and after being a Butler three away from upsetting the Celtics again in the 2022 conference finals, the Heat got a chance at redemption, playing the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals for the third time in four years.

This time, however, the circumstances were vastly different. The Heat, an eighth seed, had just pulled off upset wins against the Bucks in the first round and the New York Knicks in the second round. ESPN's analytics gave them a mere 3% chance to beat the Celtics. It felt like the only ones who believed in the Heat had a chance were themselves. The Celtics, coming off a 57-25 season, were the favorites to come out of the East, especially with the Bucks out of the playoffs and Tatum and Brown arguably both having career years. The stage was set for an unexpected turn of events.

Butler did not back down in Game 1. He had his best performance, scoring-wise, with 35 points, while the Heat outscored the Celtics by 21 points in the third quarter. In Game 2, with seven minutes to go, the pace of the game felt like the Heat were on their way to losing. Then, with 6:38 to go in the fourth quarter, Grant Williams opened his mouth when hitting a three on Butler, giving the Celtics a 97-88 lead. After that, Butler scored nine of his 27 points in the game, giving the Heat a 111-105 win. Butler instilled fear in the Boston faithful as the Heat entered TD Garden and took a 2-0 lead in the series.

The Heat won Game 3 as well, then went on to almost make history by nearly blowing a 3-0 lead in a series. However, the Heat "stood eye to eye with history and did not blink" (Kevin Harlin) and found a way to win Game 7 in Boston, led by Butler's 28 points. This marked the Heat's third win at TD Garden during the series. Losing on the road as an underdog is one thing in the postseason, but losing three out of four home games to an eight-seed is something that can not be taken lightly.

After the loss to the Heat in 2023, it was a turning point for Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens. Despite their previous successes, it felt like they were back to square one after being outplayed by Butler and the Heat. The Heat's victory was a wake-up call for the Celtics, prompting them to reevaluate and make substantial changes. 

Stevens surely did, trading beloved point guard Marcus Smart for Kristaps Porzingis after nine seasons. Stevens also dealt 2023 Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon and rising center Robert Williams III for Jrue Holiday. 

Although the moves were risky, Porzingis and Holiday played pivotal roles in the Celtics' success, helping Boston get the top seed in the Eastern Conference and a league-best 64 wins. The Celtics went on to face the Heat again, this time in the first round and with no Butler in the lineup. Without Butler and several other key rotation players, Miami did not stand a chance, and the Celtics seized the opportunity to get revenge on their rival, winning in five games.

Now the Celtics are one win away from taking the Larry O'Brien trophy. When you wonder how the Celtics are 15-2 this postseason, and are cruising towards an NBA title look no further than what the Heat and Butler did to the Celtics in the 2020 and 2023 Eastern Conference finals. Both Butler's and the Heat's performances served as a wake-up call for the Celtics, pushing them to make significant changes to be in the position they are today.