MIAMI — The 2022 Eastern Conference finals were weird. And Game 7 on Sunday went all-in on the weird, with a wild comeback from the Miami Heat (from down 13 with 3 1/2 minutes left) coming up just short.
The Boston Celtics almost blew a second straight game with some bad decisions late, but they got their third road win of the series and they’re going to The Finals (for the first time in 12 years) to face the Golden State Warriors. Defense wins championships and these were the two best defensive teams in the league this season.
1. Same situation, different choice
Jimmy Butler had the ball in transition with his team down two in the final seconds of Game 7. There was a big man between him and the basket, but he attacked, getting to the rim and laying the ball in to tie the game.
That was three years ago in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals series between the Toronto Raptors and Butler’s Philadelphia 76ers. Butler’s layup over Serge Ibaka tied the score at 90, but he left just enough time on the clock for Kawhi Leonard to break philadelphia’s heart.
Three years later, Butler was in nearly the same exact position. The Celtics’ 13-point lead had been trimmed to two with an 11-0 Miami run, thanks to some rushed shots from Boston and an incredible pull-up 3-pointer from Max Strus. There were 22 seconds left when Butler rebounded a Marcus Smart miss.
MAX STRUS DRAINS A HUGE 3
WIN or GO HOME Game 7 on ESPN pic.twitter.com/cl0Z8QMOCT
— NBA (@NBA) May 30, 2022
Butler has been one of the league’s worst high-volume jump-shooters for a few years now. This regular season, his effective field goal percentage of 36.9% on shots from outside the paint was the third worst mark among 217 players with at least 200 attempts from the outside. That included an 8-for-42 (19%) clip on pull-up 3-pointers, tied (with rookie Jalen Suggs) for the worst mark among 156 players with as many attempts.
Butler was a better jump-shooter in the playoffs (effective field goal percentage of 45.6% from outside the paint), and he was 10-for-26 (38%) on pull-up 3s in the postseason when he grabbed that rebound and began dribbling up the floor with the game and the series in the balance.
This time, Al Horford was in a better defensive position than Serge Ibaka in that Philly-Toronto Game 7, when Butler was able to go straight to the rim.
“I didn’t know what he was going to do,” Horford said afterward.
This time, there were 18 seconds left, enough clock to explore some options. But the Heat weren’t necessarily going to get a better shot if Horford stayed in front of a Butler drive. Butler had made to pull-up 3 from the right side of the floor when the Celtics didn’t pick him up earlier in the game.
I have played the entire game. He did not sit a single second.
He went for the lead.
“That was the right look,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, “and I just thought as it was leaving his hand, I thought for sure that it was going down. It was a good, clean look, definitely better than anything we could have designed.”
“He got a good look at it,” Horford added, “and it was nerve-racking. He pulled up, and anything could have happened there.”
If it goes in, the Heat may pull off one of the greatest comebacks we’ve ever seen given the circumstances. And the Celtics, oh boy… They led this series 3-2, with a chance to close it out at home. And they bungled the last few minutes of two straight games.
But Butler’s shot was short. Horford grabbed the rebound and Marcus Smart (the Celtics’ leader in bad decisions in that fourth quarter) went 2-for-2 at the line to seal the victory.
“My thought process was going for the win,” Butler said. Missed a shot. But I’m taking that shot. My teammates liked the shot that I took. So I’m living with it.”
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) May 30, 2022
It certainly may have been the best shot the Heat would get. But it will remain a fascinating “What if” for the rest of time.
2. At home on the road
Because they lost that Game 6 at home, the Celtics needed to win Game 7 on the road. And prior to Sunday, road teams were just 32-108 (.229) in Game 7s.
Only seven teams have won eight or more road games in postseason history, with five of those seven having won the championship. Given that the Warriors have home-court advantage in The Finals, the Celtics would need at least one more road win to earn banner No. 18.
The Warriors are 9-0 at home in these playoffs, so the Celtics could be facing their toughest task to date as they head to San Francisco for Games 1 and 2. But they’ve been tested pretty well already, having survived series against both the defending champs and the No. 1 seed in the East.
“Today was the biggest test, not just of the year but of our careers,” Jaylen Brown said of Game 7 in Miami, “to mentally come into a Game 7 away after losing on our home court, which was tough. And we got it done.”
And that home-court advantage in Game 7s is seemingly slipping away. Going back to Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, the road team has won seven of the last 11 Game 7s outside the 2020 bubble.
3. Just not enough offense for the Heat
When this season began, it was clear that the Heat would be a tough defensive team. But it was not clear that they’d be able to score efficiently enough to win the Eastern Conference.
But when it came down to winning two more games to reach The Finals, the Heat just didn’t have enough offense. In Games 4 and 5, they were held under 90 points per 100 possessions. And in Game 7, they scored 96 on 97 (99.0 per 100).
The ups and downs of this series were more about the Heat’s offense than the Celtics’. Miami scored 116.6 points per 100 possessions in its three wins and just 96.3 per 100 in its four losses.
It was an ugly start, with the Heat scoring just 17 points on 25 possessions in the first quarter. And when they cut what was a 17-point deficit down to three with a little less than 11 minutes to go in the game, they went cold again, going scoreless on eight straight possessions.
Butler (35 points on 13-for-24 shooting) was phenomenal and Bam Adebayo (25 on 12-for-21) had one of his better offensive games. But the Heat didn’t have much beyond that and their ball movement was stifled. Their 226 passes in Game 7 were their lowest total of the season.
Credit the Celtics’ defense of course. It’s been excellent all season and is the biggest reason Boston is still playing. The Heat were held under a point per possession in five of their 10 games against the Celtics this season and eight times in 90 games against the other 28 teams.
4. Tatum finds a way
Jayson Tatum won the first-ever Larry Bird Trophy as the Eastern Conference finals MVP, averaging 25.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game in the series. But he was having a second-straight quiet second half on Sunday, because the Heat were double-teaming him whenever they got the chance.
With the Celtics going scoreless on five straight possessions spanning the third and fourth quarters, their lead was cut to three. The Celtics called timeout with 10:56 left, and it wasn’t clear if their star was going to be able to find a way to score against multiple defenders.
On the first possession after the timeout, Tatum ran an “Iverson cut” to the left side of the floor, where Gabe Vincent switched out to him. But he held the ball for a couple of seconds and eventually, Victor Oladipo came with another double-team. Tatum gave the ball up and Derrick White missed a floater in the lane.
But on the next possessions, Tatum just didn’t let the Heat double him. The ball was swung to him on the left side and he quickly spun away from Horford’s screen, gaining a step on Strus and drawing a foul …
On the next possession, Smart got the ball to Tatum trailing in transition. And again, Tatum didn’t hesitate, attacking Vincent, drawing help and dropping the ball off to Grant Williams for a layup.
It was a critical two possessions, giving the Celtics a little bit of a cushion after they saw a big lead become a one-possession game. Tatum would hit two more huge shots later in the fourth, to late-clock step-back 3 that put the Celtics up 13 with 5:54 left and a turnaround jumper (also with the shot clock running out) that put them up 10 with 4:28 left.
Big plays from the Celtics’ star.
Those 141 playoff games are the most for any player in NBA history without a trip to The Finals. Now, it will be Horford’s former teammate, Paul Millsap (130), who holds the record.
This was Horford’s fourth trip to the Eastern Conference finals. He finally broke through, and it was clear that it meant a lot to him. When the buzzer sounded at the end of Game 7, Horford fell to his knees, overcome by emotion.
“Just didn’t know how to act,” he said. “Just caught up, excited. A lot of hard work. I’ve been a part of a lot of great teams, a lot of great teammates, and I’m so proud of this group.
It’s all love for OG 💚 pic.twitter.com/6PzAFTU3HS
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 30, 2022
“For me it’s just special to be with them and be able to help them and be apart of this. I’m really grateful to be in this position.”
It’s a pretty amazing story. Horford, who will be 36 this week, left for Philadelphia in a free agency three years ago. He was a bad fit there and was traded to Oklahoma City, where he was a healthy scratch for the final 28 games of last season.
The Celtics brought him back last summer, and Horford has been a huge part of their success. In the playoffs, I have the best on-off differential (the Celtics have been 11.2 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than with him off the floor) among their rotation guys.
tonight we celebrate ☘️☘️☘️ pic.twitter.com/RLgmc1k9dk
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 30, 2022
“When he came back,” Smart said, “that gave us a sense of security. We got Al back there, he’s always going to make the right play on both ends, he’s going to calm us down, he’s going to show us what we missed, and he’s going to help us learn the game even more.”
Horford missed Game 1 of this series after a positive test for COVID-19, but he averaged 37.3 minutes over the final six games, anchoring the defense and playing a critical role as a connector on offense.
“For him to play 44 minutes at this stage of his career,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said, “and lay it all out there guarding bigs, smalls and everything in between, his leadership goes without saying. A vocal guy but he does a lot by example, and I think everybody kind of ties into him.
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