8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Celtics -3, Over/Under: 196
It’s poetic that this series that has been ripe with unpredictable twists and turns will ultimately come to a close with a decisive Game Seven, as the stubbornly resilient Miami Heat face off against the Boston Celtics in the final chapter of this Eastern Conference Final from FTX Arena in Miami, Florida. Forty-eight minutes are all the separate the Celtics (51-31, 2nd in Eastern Conference) from advancing to their first NBA Finals since 2010. Indeed, it’s been quite a time for Boston, who are NO stranger to this stage; tied with the Lakers for the most NBA Championships in history (17), they now find themselves a win away from appearing in their TWENTY-SECOND NBA Finals, which is second all-time behind only Los Angeles (32). However, six months ago, you would have been hard-pressed to convince even the most biased of Celtic fans that his team would advance to this point. So, what in the name of Larry Bird has happened in Beantown, you ask? Well, let’s turn the back the clock to the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals, where they fell to Miami in the Bubble as Boston would pay for their success, as fatigue, injuries, and COVID ravaged their campaign, leaving them to be ushered out of the postseason in the First Round. This past summer, the franchise underwent a structural reboot as (longtime Team President) Danny Ainge stepped down and was in turn replaced by Brad Stevens, who abdicated his role as Head Coach to ascend to the Front Office. Following a lengthy coaching search, Stevens settled upon Ime Udoka as his successor, with the respected tactician enduring a disappointing start to his tenure in Beantown, as his troops meandered to a 17-19 record by the start of the New Year. However, everything changed at that point, as Boston went on to log the NBA’s best record in this new calendar year (34-12), thanks in large part to some inspired personnel decisions from Stevens, coupled with one helluva coaching job by Udoka. With the additions of (All-Star Forward) Al Horford (10.2 PTS, 46.7% FG, 33.6% 3FG, 84.2% FT, 7.7 REB, 3.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.3 BLK, 16.7 PER), (veteran Guard) Derrick White (11.0 PTS, 40.9% FG, 30.6% 3FG, 85.3% FT, 3.4 REB, 3.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 12.9 PER), and (Backup Center) Daniel Theis (7.9 PTS, 59.8% FG, 35.7% 3FG, 68.8% FT, 4.7 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.7 BLK, 17.0 PER), coupled with the presence of (newly-minted Defensive Player of the Year) Marcus Smart (21.1 PTS, 41.8% FG, 33.1% 3FG, 79.3% FT, 3.8 REB, 5.9 AST, 1.7 STL, 13.6 PER), and the growth of (emerging Center) Robert Williams (10.0 PTS, 73.6% FG, 72.2% FT, 9.6 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.9 STL, 2.2 BLK, 22.1 PER), this is a team that has morphed into a bonafide defensive juggernaut, relegating their opponents to a scant 102.5 points per game on 42.9% shooting from the field, including 33.5% from beyond the arc, and 21.5 assists in comparison to forcing 12.8 turnovers, all the while owning a +3.8 advantage on the glass since January 2nd. This has certainly been evident in these playoffs, where they’ve allowed a postseason-low 101.3 points on 43.3% shooting from the floor, including 32.3% from downtown, along with 20.2 assists in comparison to forcing 12.5 turnovers, all the while testing their mettle against some of the filthiest offensive threats in the NBA including Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Jimmy Butler MUCH more on him shortly). Unfortunately, the Celtics let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers in failing to close out this series on their home floor, falling 111-103 in Friday night’s stunning Game Six from TD Garden. After thrashing the Heat in Games Four (102-82) and Five (93-80), this latest chapter of a very uneven series was ill-fated for the hosts from the opening tip; Boston trailed throughout the first three quarters before eventually taking a 97-94 lead late in the fourth quarter, with the two sides trading baskets over the course of the final four minutes of play. After a pair of Smart free-throws made it 99-99 with 3:27 left on the clock, Udoka’s charges would be held scoreless for the next 1:20, a dreadful sequence in which Smart missed a three-pointer, (All-Star Swingmen) Jayson Tatum (26.9 PTS, 45.3% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 85.3% FT, 8.0 REB, 4.4 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.6 BLK, 21.8 PER) and Jaylen Brown (23.6 PTS, 47.3% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 75.8% FT, 6.1 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.9 PER) missed a pair of free-throws before turning the ball over, followed by successive missed treys from both Horford and White. Tatum would cut it to four points with forty seconds remaining, but that would be as close as they could get in a matchup that very well may haunt them throughout the offseason. The Celtics shot 44.4% from the field, including 11-of-33 from beyond the arc (33.3%), though managed to close the gap at the charity stripe (28-of-31), but once again the deciding factor was their inability to take care of the basketball, committing eighteen turnovers that were manufactured into twenty-two points. Though on the whole of the series, Boston has been arguably the better team, and certainly the healthier of the two, but when they’ve lost it has been primarily due to their own mistakes; in their three victories they’ve committed thirty-two turnovers for thirty-five points, but in their three defeats they’ve turned it over FIFTY-EIGHT times for SEVENTY-FOUR points, including twenty-four giveaways for thirty-three points in Game Three. In the end, Tatum led the team with thirty points on an efficient 9-of-12 shooting (75.0%), including 4-of-7 from downtown (57.1%) and 8-of-8 from the stripe (100.0%), along with nine rebounds, four assists, a pair of steals, and a block, but also committed seven turnovers. Brown added twenty points on 6-of-13 shooting (46.2%), six rebounds, five assists, but also coughed up the rock four times, while Smart and Horford struggled mightily with a combined seventeen points on 5-of-23 shooting (21.7%) and 2-of-15 from three (13.3%). White was huge coming off the bench with twenty-two points, three rebounds, five assists, and three steals, but it wasn’t enough for the Celtics, who lost their fifth consecutive game in the Eastern Finals in which they had an opportunity to close out their opponent dating back to 2018. With all that said, the reality is that all they have to do tonight to end that streak is win a road game, which is something that they’ve already done on two occasions in this series, and they’ve done so handedly; Boston stormed into FTX Arena in Games Two and Five, winning those contests by a staggering THIRTY-EIGHT points, with the former serving as the fourth-largest home defeat in Miami’s postseason history. Furthermore, you would be hard-pressed to find a franchise that has been more at ease in Game Sevens, owning a stellar 24-9 record in such contests, with their most recent coming in the previous round of these playoffs in which they toppled the (defending champion) Bucks in a 109-81 triumph at the Garden.
Meanwhile, ladies and gentlemen, if it wasn’t apparent after Friday night’s shocking 111-103 victory at TD Garden, the Heat (53-29, 1st in Eastern Conference) still have plenty of fight left in them. Needless to say, we sincerely doubt that even the most blindly loyal fan on South Beach could have imagined that Miami would rise from the dead and force a decisive seventh game in this Eastern Conference Final. For all intents and purposes, (Head Coach) Erick Spoelstra’s troops looked dead in the water following back-to-back losses in Games Four and Five in which they could muster a miserable 81.0 points on 32.6% shooting from the field, including 25.9% from beyond the arc, with only 18.0 assists in comparison to 10.5 turnovers, all the while getting manhandled on the boards (-9.0). Furthermore, the injury situation has reached critical mass for the Heat, whose rotation has been RAVAGED by a variety of maladies. (Veterans) Kyle Lowry (13.4 PTS, 44.0% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 85.1% FT, 7.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 15.0 PER) and P.J. Tucker (7.6 PTS, 48.4% FG, 41.5% 3FG, 73.8% FT, 5.5 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 11.3 PER) struggled with hamstring and foot injuries, with the former looking like a shell of himself after missing eight of ten games, while various members of the supporting cast including (newly-minted Sixth Man of the Year) Tyler Herro (20.7 PTS, 44.7% FG, 39.9% 3FG, 86.8% FT, 5.0 REB, 4.0 AST, 0.7 STL, 16.2 PER) and (unheralded Forward) Max Strus (10.6 PTS, 44.1% FG, 41.0% 3FG, 79.2% FT, 3.0 REB, 1.4 AST, 12.7 PER) were slowed with ailing hamstrings of their own. Herro’s has been particularly problematic, sidelining the steaky Guard for the last three games. However, by far and away the biggest issue has been the ailing knee of (All-Star Swingman) Jimmy Butler (21.4 PTS, 48.0% FG, 23.3% 3FG, 87.0% FT, 5.9 REB, 5.7 AST, 1.6 STL, 0.5 BLK, 23.6 PER), who left midway through Game Three with inflammation in his knee and was a shell of himself between Games Three and Five, totaling a combined TWENTY-SEVEN points on 10-of-40 shooting (25.0%). Spoelstra relies heavily upon the six-time All-Star to do so much for the team on both ends of the hardwood, for prior to that night, the 32-year-old had been a MONSTER in averaging 29.8 points on 54.0% shooting from the field, including 34.7% from beyond the arc, along with 7.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 2.2 steals. With Butler essentially performing on one leg, there was no way that the Heat could turn things around, right? Well, no matter what happens tonight, what transpired in Game Six at the Garden will go down in the annals of history, as Butler authored one of the greatest performances ever seen in the playoffs, willing his side to victory with a whopping FORTY-SEVEN points on 16-of-29 shooting (55.2%), including 4-of-8 from downtown (50.0%) and 11-of-11 from the charity stripe (100.0%), along with nine rebounds, eight assists, and four steals. It was the seventh-most points by any player facing elimination, along with his fourth 40-point outburst of this postseason, as he also joined the legendary Michael Jordan (1988) as the only other players in NBA history to post multiple 40-point/4-steal performances within a single series. Seventeen points of that total came in the fourth quarter, accounting for all but two of his team’s points in the first 7:39 of the period, before drilling a CLUTCH contested 20-footer with forty-three seconds remaining to virtually end the contest. As a whole, Miami shot 462% from the field, including a torrid 15-of-35 from three (42.9%), and 24-of-25 from the free-throw line (96.0%), with twenty-five assists opposed to committing nineteen turnovers. Inspired by Butler’s explosion, Lowry FINALLY made an impact for the first time in this Eastern Final, compiling eighteen points, four rebounds, and ten assists, while drilling 4-of-9 treys (44.4%). Strus and Tucker also showed up, combining for twenty-four points on 8-of-16 shooting (50.0%) and 5-of-10 from deep (50.0%), seven rebounds, three assists, and a pair of steals. Indeed, Game Six stood in stark contrast to its two immediate predecessors in how the starting lineup performed; in Game Four, the quintet of Butler, Lowry, Tucker, Strus and (All-Star Forward) Bam Adebayo (19.1 PTS, 55.7% FG, 75.3% FT, 10.1 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.8 BLK, 21.8 PER) combined for a scant EIGHTEEN points, which was the lowest total by any starting five since the 1970-1971 campaign, before bouncing back with forty-two points in Game Five, which was still well below their standard. The starters accounted for ninety-five points on Friday night, though one can’t help but wonder why they haven’t received more from Adebayo, who apart from totaling thirty-one points, ten rebounds, six assists, and four steals in Game Three, has offered just forty-nine points on thirty-six attempts in the other five outings combined. Already at a disadvantage in terms of size, Miami cannot afford to keep receiving this lack of production from their lone big man, whose lack of aggression has been puzzling to say the least. Heading into tonight’s final chapter, the question on everyone’s mind is what does this team, and particularly Butler, have left? There is a possibility that the aforementioned Herro could return to hardwood, with Spoelstra stating that his work on the court before tipoff will decide his availability. The Heat are 6-4 all-time in Game Sevens and have toppled the Celtics once such contests; back in 2012, Miami trailed Boston 3-2 only for LeBron James to erupt for forty-five points in forcing a Game Seven on South Beach, which the hosts won in lieu of securing the first of back-to-back NBA Titles.