It was a crucible game in the Miami Heat’s 35-year franchise history — not just any must-win Game 7, but the one that would send Miami either onto the NBA Finals … or into historic ignominy.
“We’re making history either which way,” the Heat’s Gabe Vincent put it well before Monday night’s game in Boston. “Which side of history do we want to be on?”
The Heat answered Monday night in Boston, and it answered emphatically as it has all postseason: Against odds.
Miami won comfortably, 103-84, led by Jimmy Butler’s 28 points, and now advances to face Denver in the NBA Finals starting Thursday out west. The team flew straight there overnight.
Caleb Martin led the way.
Wait, what? Caleb Martin?
Caleb Martin! His 26 points including four 3-point baskets were the spark, and a huge reason the Heat posed for a postgame team photo all wearing white Finals T-shirts. Bam Adebayo held the Eastern Conference champions trophy. Butler held the Finals MVP hardware.
“We don’t play just to win the Eastern Conference,” Butler said. “We’re playing to win the whole thing. I like our chances.”
My MVP vote would have gone to Martin.
“Caleb Martin HOOPIN!!!!,” tweeted Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks.
Also happy for the Godfather, who keeps provin’ ‘em all wrong. This is Pat Riley’s 19th NBA Finals as player, coach or executive.
The victory is a great accomplishment — Miami’s seventh trip to the Finals in search of a fourth franchise championship — but it’s as much a relief.
The Heat faced a defeat it would have worn like the indelible tattoo you forever regret, the stain that will never quite come clean. The memory of what the Heat avoided would have faded, but when it recurred it would always have been with a wince. Because only one team can ever be the first to ever blow a 3-0 NBA playoff series lead. And with the NBA Finals on the line, no less.
Now that the Heat has avoided an awful kind of history, it can chase the opposite kind.
Only one other No. 8 seed has ever reached the NBA Finals, the 1999 New York Knicks (who beat Miami along the way). The Heat can become the lowest seed ever to win a championship, a distinction that now belongs to the 1995 Houston Rockets, who were a No. 6 seed.
Meanwhile the Florida Panthers head to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1996 in search of their first title, with the Vegas Knights the opponents.
Monday night dubiously minted Boston as the first and only city to lose a home Game 7 to a No. 8 seed the same season in both hockey and basketball.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra despite his team losing three in a row mustered bravado after Monday’s morning shootaround.
“We have great mental stability with our group, and we understand that we have a big audacious goal. It’s not just this game, it’s not just this series,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of experience bouncing back in a very powerful way. Our guys love to compete, and our guys are the men in the arena — so we know what it feels like.”
So did the Celtics. But Miami had the double drive of not only avoiding historic shame, but also avenging last season’s playoff exit.
One year to the day after Boston beat Miami in a Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals, the Heat said “not again.”
One year later, Miami goes on to the NBA Finals, and it is the Celtics who will know how much it will hurt to watch that on TV having come so, so close.
“What happened last year was on our minds and drove us,” admitted Spoelstra. “It’s poetic justice.”
This was the 17th Game 7 in South Florida sports history, the Heat now 7-5, the Panthers 2-1 and the Marlins 2-0. This was the ninth this deep in the playoffs.
Miami is a big betting underdog to the Denver Nuggets and two-time league MVP Nikola Jokic in the Finals starting this Thursday — as the Heat have been an underdog this whole postseason.
“People can relate to this team,” Spoelstra said. “Life is hard. Inevitable setbacks happen. It’s how you deal with it. Game 6 could have punctured this team’s spirit. Instead it drove us with more resolve. It’s a special group. We keep on picking each other up and going on to the next fight.”
The storyline now immediately pivots to how on Earth Miami can defend Jokic.
We can only imagine what it would have been for Miami had the Heat lost Monday.
Days of national vilification and mockery were cocked and ready. The first team ever to blow this great a playoff series lead and lose would have been crucified by traditional media, on social media, maybe by its own fans.
It would have been too much, and lacking all perspective.
What if I had told you a No 8-seeded team beset with injuries had fought uphill to just barely make the playoffs and would then rise as an underdog to topple mighty Milwaukee, to eliminate enemy New York and then take top seed Boston to seven games?
Pretty good, right? It still would have been pretty pretty good, even weighing the way it wold have ended.
Now, merrily, we need only debate if this is the most impressive Heat Finals appearance of any.
I say yes.
It is hugely more unexpected than the Dwyane Wade/Shaquille O’Neal Finals run or than the four in a row with the LeBron James-led Big 3.
This one was Butler and Adebayo and four key undrafted players such as Martin. This one happened with Tyler Herro injured and in street clothes, though he could return in the Finals.
That the Heat are a big betting underdog again is no surprise. Miami was that before beating Milwaukee, then an underdog again before beating New York, then again before beating Boston.
Bit of a pattern here? Miami keeps winning, and the people betting on the other teams keep losing.
Not to say the Nuggets shouldn’t be favored. They should be. They’ve been 4-0 vs. Miami in the regular season the past two years. They were a No. 1 seed to Miami’s No. 8. And that Jokic guy again. Seems unstoppable. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid are really good big men. Jokic is on another planet.
Denver vs. Miami also delivers ready-made drama in the bad blood division.
You may remember (the Heat does) that in November 2021 Jokic’s dirty, blindside foul on Markieff Morris caused the then-Heat player to miss 58 games. Morris had fouled Jokic and the big Serb retaliated with a bodycheck to the back. Morris was given a flagrant foul and fined. Butler (this is great) was also fined “for attempting to escalate the altercation.”
Spoelstra called it a “very dangerous and dirty play” by Jokic. Heat players were waiting in the arena tunnel to confront Jokic before being dispersed by club officials. The anger was genuine.
The best part?
The Jokic Brothers!
Nikola’s much-older brothers Nemanja and Strahinja threatened Morris’ brothers in a back and forth on Twitter. The Jokic brothers look like actors constantly typecast as villains. They love to sit courtside.
Yeah, the Finals oughta be fun!
This whole postseason ride has been that for the No. 8 seed everybody else counted out.