The Heat Win Ugly
9:07 AM EDT on May 30, 2023
The Miami Heat beat the Celtics 103-84 in Boston, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Monday night. The Celtics had had a shot at becoming the first team in NBA history to win a seven-game playoff series after losing the first three games, but fell behind in the first quarter, trailed the rest of the way, and came unglued in the second half. The Heat, seeded eighth in the conference, will return to the Finals with the same core that fell to the Lakers in the Orlando bubble in 2020.
What bizarre and chaotic basketball this was. Boston's Jayson Tatum injured his ankle on basically the first play of the game, by the second quarter he could barely walk—and for nearly the entire night the Heat made no concerted effort even to make him chase anybody around on defense. Robert Williams III was the biggest difference-maker for Boston in the first half, the Heat couldn't dream of getting good looks when he was on the floor—and yet, Jimmy Butler kept calling for him on switches, fruitlessly. And Boston coach Joe Mazzulla kept yanking him out of the game. Jaylen Brown, Boston's consensus second-best player, was the worst player on the floor; the second-worst was Bam Adebayo, Miami's consensus second-best player. The stars of the game were Derrick White and Caleb Martin.
By midway through the first quarter the two teams settled into a sort of gratifying, if punishingly ugly, contrast. The Heat, outmatched in size and athleticism at nearly every position—and with Adebayo, their one athletic advantage, playing like somebody'd switched his legs while he wasn't looking—improvised and pump-faked and shambled their way through each possession; they didn't know where their next shot or basket would come from, but trusted themselves to figure it out. The ball and player movement weren't lovely, or quick, or sharp. The transition offense was like watching a bunch of little kids. Adebayo kept falling over; Butler kept jump-stopping and then shooting the ball directly into Williams's armpit. But then Martin, the hero of the series, would make a clever little side-step with three seconds left on the shot-clock, and pump up a shot, and it would go in, over and over and over again.
Then it would be Boston's turn and Brown, committed to Hero Mode from the moment Tatum's ankle rolled over, would somehow manage to dribble off of his own ass and lose the ball. He finished with eight turnovers, all of them appalling, against eight made field-goals. White kept the Celtics in the game for a while, and then kept them in the building for a while, and then he cooled off and suddenly they were down by 23 points in the fourth quarter, as a team must be when Derrick White is all it has going for it.
It's difficult to pinpoint much of anything specific the Heat did to win this game, other than, uh, win it. They did not play well, so much as they just played a lot. Even with Tatum hobbling around like he needed to be fitted for a peg, the Celtics still had vast size and speed and talent advantages all over the floor, and more depth, and were at home, and had won Game 6 in about the most devastating fashion imaginable. But this was the kind of game the Heat seem engineered to win: Shapeless, rhythmless, inexplicable, and bad to watch. The kind of game that makes you feel worse about both teams. Maybe their superpower is just that they have no distaste for that whatsoever. Points are points; stops are stops; outcomes are outcomes. The previous ugly possession has nothing to say about the next one; the nightmarish Game 6 loss has nothing to say about Game 7. There is no particular way any of this is supposed to go; there is only how it goes. As much as, like, a focus on physical fitness or Udonis Haslem making intense faces or whatever, maybe that is Heat Culture.
By contrast, the Celtics seemed like they were waiting for regression to the mean to start making their three-pointers for them; to assure Brown's next ill-advised hoopward jaunt; to clang Martin's next shot off the back of the rim. Regression to the mean is a real thing! But it is indifferent to clocks. The Celtics might make their next 200 three-pointers in a row over the summer. Caleb Martin might go 0-for-90 in the Finals. That would be funny. None of it will do any good for Boston. In any case I am no basketball skills coach, but in my opinion Jaylen Brown should spend July growing thumbs.
The back half of the fourth was garbage time. Boston's home crowd filed out with minutes to spare. The humiliated silence, the smattered booing, were delights. Dead-enders will insist on the decisiveness of Tatum's ankle injury to the outcome, but half of Miami's points in Game 7 were scored by guys who were waiting tables in Beirut last summer, even if only in spirit.
The Denver Nuggets better win the Finals by a zillion.