151 teams have gone 3-0 up in NBA playoffs history, the last two instances happening in the 2023 Conference Finals. The Heat made sure those 151 are still faultless.
In the Western Conference, Denver Nuggets became the 150th team and swept the Los Angeles Lakers behind monumental efforts from Nikola Jokic. The Serbian big man recorded three triple-doubles while averaging 27.8 points, 14.5 rebounds, and 11.8 assists in the series. The Lakers were helpless, hopeless, and surprisingly out of their depth.
The Miami Heat meanwhile stormed out to a 3-0 lead against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference, taking the first two games in Boston. The fourth game in Miami was supposed to be the clincher, but it was not. Neither was the fifth game in Boston or the sixth in Miami, with Derrick White keeping the Celtics alive with 0.1 seconds left on the clock.
Just three teams out of the 150 before the Celtics had managed to tie the series – the 1951 New York Knicks, the 1994 Denver Nuggets, and the 2003 Portland Trail Blazers. But they all went on to lose Game 7 away from home (to the Rochester Royals, the Utah Jazz, and the Dallas Mavericks respectively).
This time, a historic turnaround seemed inevitable. The Celtics held home-court advantage, had taken down Miami in Game 7 at the same point a year ago, and finished off the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 just two weeks ago. They had the class, the expertise, and the experience. But it was not meant to be.
Pack for a week
In the end, Miami led Game 7 by as many as 17 in the first half and held their own to win 103-84. Jimmy Butler received the Larry Bird Trophy as series MVP, while Heat legend Udonis Haslem held the Bob Cousy Trophy awarded to conference winners – both aptly named after Celtics legends and handed to them in Boston. After heartbreak on home court a year ago, it seemed fitting.
“Next year, we will have enough and we’re going to be right back in this same situation and we’re going to get it done,” Miami’s alpha dog Jimmy Butler promised in 2022, after losing Game 7 and missing the Finals. Talk about being prophetic.
And so the dream continues. Miami became just the second 8th seed in NBA history to reach the Finals after the New York Knicks in 1999, and the first who took a longer route. They started the play-in tournament by losing to the Atlanta Hawks 105-116 and were just one game away from missing the playoffs altogether.
In that first final against the Chicago Bulls, Heat trailed by a point with just two and a half minutes to play. To use the infamous words of Matti Nykänen, it was fifty-sixty at that moment, but the Heat churned it out.
Few gave them a chance against the 2021 NBA champions, 2022/23 1st seed Milwaukee Bucks, but the Heat took Game 1 away from home with Bucks star man Giannis Antetokounmpo getting injured early. The two-time league MVP returned for Game 4 with the Heat 2-1 up, but even a triple-double and a monster 38-point 20-rebound effort from Antetokounmpo could not stop the Heat from rolling to a 4-1 upset.
Against the 5th seed New York Knicks, Miami once again grabbed Game 1 on away court to turn the tide. They kept it tight at home and overcame the Knicks in six games even though Butler struggled with injuries. And it was pretty much the same story against Boston with pundits almost unanimously backing the Celtics, but the Heat came up big when it mattered.
What speaks about the Heat culture is that when they met on Sunday to fly to Boston, the players were told to pack for a week – instead of returning home, they had already booked a flight to Denver. The Nuggets now await, with Game 1 on Thursday.
“The job is not done. We didn’t go through what we went through all the regular season and my personal journey to stop here. I understand that we have four more,” said Caleb Martin, Heat’s unlikely hero. A 27-year-old that went undrafted in 2019, he sat out Game 7 last year. This time, he contributed 26 points to go with 10 rebounds.
The right mix
A total of seven undrafted players have played this postseason for the Heat. They suffered heavy blows with Victor Oladipo, the 2nd pick of the 2013 NBA draft injuring his knee seriously against the Bucks and 2022 Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro undergoing hand surgery during the same series.
Oladipo is out indefinitely and although Herro might yet return in the Finals, others had to step up. Duncan Robinson put up 20 against the Bucks on his 29th birthday and had some big games vs Boston as well. Gabe Vincent exploded for a career-high 29 against Boston and has reached 20+ three other times. Out of the 18 playoff games played, Max Strus posted double-digits in ten of them while never scoring more than 19. They too went undrafted.
37-year-old Kyle Lowry is there to provide a veteran presence from point guard. A six-time All-Star and 2019 NBA champion with the Toronto Raptors, he was once able to score 20 on any given night. Against the Celtics, he recorded 15, 0, 7, 5, 5, 8, and 7 to calm things down. Kevin Love, now 34, can help too when called upon.
Center Bam Adebayo is now the Robin to Butler’s Batman. Slightly undersized at 6’9″, he is a defensive stalwart capable of triple-doubles who averaged 20-10 during the regular season. He is unstable, however. Against Boston, Adebayo had a 22-17-9 Game 2 while going 13-3-2 in the next one.
“Nobody ever complains. They always do exactly what you ask of them to do, which is why you want to play with guys like that, which is why they are the reason we win so many games. I don’t call them role players; I call them teammates, because your role can change any given day,” remarked Butler.
At 33, he is the alpha tasked with settling close games. He can go off for 30, 40, or even 50 as seen against Milwaukee, but Butler is also down to do the dirty work like everyone else. Only the W matters to him. He embodies the Heat culture like few other superstars could.
And then there is Haslem, a 42-year-old geront on his last legs. After winning titles in 2006, 2012, and 2013, he will not be back in October; this is the end of the road for him. One more fight, one more series for the captain. He has been on the court for just 2 minutes and 28 seconds in the 2023 playoffs, but with the twists and turns so far, who knows what will happen and who will need to step up?
Sure, it would be smart to bet on Denver. But maybe it is time to stop betting against the Heat. “I like our chances,” Butler noted.