Maybe the Celtics go on to win if Jayson Tatum landed a few inches left. Their best player wasn’t the same after rolling his left ankle a few seconds into Game 7. Then again, Boston’s resolve had cracked often during the NBA Eastern Conference playoffs, and the Heat are uniquely suited to take advantage of doubts and insecurities.
It didn’t seem that way while they were losing three consecutive games in the Eastern Conference finals. The Heat were in danger of becoming the first of 151 NBA teams to hold a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series and blow it. They looked uncharacteristically tentative while losing Games 4 and 5, then lost Game 6 on Derrick White’s tip-in just before the buzzer.
That series of events should have been deflating. But the Heat didn’t play like a downtrodden team in Game 7 on Monday in Boston. They played like an angry team that was ready for the fight. The Heat got off the mat, dominated the Celtics and earned the right to face West champion Denver in the NBA Finals starting Thursday.
They talk a lot about “Heat Culture” in Miami. It can be annoying. I heard it all the time when I covered the team during its Dwyane Wade/Shaquille O’Neal era. There’s something to it, though. The Heat’s results reflect the culture built by the NBA’s ultimate winner, Pat Riley, during his 29-year association with the franchise.
The Heat expect certain things to stay consistent — defense, competitiveness, togetherness — no matter which players are on the floor. They always believe they can win when the odds say they shouldn’t. Those characteristics make the Heat’s run to the finals as a No. 8 seed not as surprising.
The Heat join the 1998-99 Knicks as the only No. 8 seeds to reach the finals. New York did it during a season shortened to 50 games because of a lockout. The Heat made it to the playoffs by winning 44 games, getting through the play-in by the slimmest of margins and then acting as if they own the East.
Before the play-in games, bookmakers gave the Heat 55-1 odds to win the East. They lost their first play-in game at home to the mediocre Hawks. The Heat faced elimination when they trailed the Bulls, a lesser team than the Hawks, with less than three minutes to play in the second play-in game. They survived and advanced to the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season
The Heat were 8-1 longshots to beat top-seeded Milwaukee in the first round. Miami won the best-of-seven series in five games. Bookmakers gave Miami implied odds of 43% to beat the Knicks in the second round. The Heat flipped the percentages by winning Game 1 in New York and then took the series in six.
The Heat were 4-to-1 underdogs against the Celtics. They won the opening game for the third time in three series. The Heat were listless in Games 4 and 5. They were fraction of a second away from eliminating the Celtics when White slithered to the basket to tip in the game winner.
The Heat should have been devastated after that loss, but Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had a defiant posture in a memorable interview with reporters after the game.
“At this time right now, I don’t know how we’re going to get this done, but we’re going to go up there and get it done,” Spoelstra said. “There’s been nothing easy about this season for our group, so we just have to do it the hard way. That’s just the way it’s got to be for our group.
“We wish we could tip this thing off right now. Right now, we want to tip this thing off and play another 48 minutes. But we’ll wait 48 hours and do this thing in Boston.”
The Heat went to Boston and did the thing. They usually do with Spoelstra, Riley’s hand-picked successor. He’s somehow an underrated coach despite building the NBA’s strongest resume. Spoelstra is taking the Heat to the NBA Finals for the seventh time in 15 seasons.
It’s not true that “Spo” was just along for the ride with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Spoelstra won two NBA championships and two East titles with that group, but he proved he could coach before that. Spoelstra led Wade and a group of unremarkable role players to the postseason two years in a row.
Two years after LeBron left Miami for L.A., Spoelstra’s Heat won 48 games. They advanced to the East semifinals with Bosh, the lesser of the Big Three, as the leading scorer. Now the Heat are in the NBA Finals for the second time in four years. It’s about the players and coaches, but also the culture.
The Heat don’t have a superstar player. Forward Jimmy Butler is very good, but his talents are limited compared with the best of his All-NBA peers. Butler gets the most of his talents with seemingly unlimited desire. He’s physical, tough, relentless and fearless.
That makes Butler an ideal leader for the Heat. Those traits are part of their organizational DNA. The Celtics don’t have that. That’s why I’m not so sure they would have won Game 7 even if Tatum hadn’t twisted his ankle soon after tipoff.
The Heat are underdogs in the NBA Finals, but it seems bookmakers are finally giving them more respect. Miami opened with 3-1 odds to win the championship. That’s a lower number than I expected. The Nuggets were the NBA’s best team all season and they have the best player, Nikola Jokić. Denver ran through the West bracket with little trouble.
I see the Nuggets eliminating Miami in six games. Before the playoffs started, I predicted the Celtics would win the East. My belief in that pick grew once the Bucks went out early, and the Heat were all that stood between the Celtics and the NBA finals.
The Heat proved me wrong. I won’t be surprised if they do it again. It’s part of their nature.