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Resilient Miami continues to thrive against adversity

The Heat’s latest triumph in the face of difficult challenges has placed them two wins away from making the NBA Finals.

NBA: Playoffs-Miami Heat at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Heat have fared well against adversity all season regardless of their predicament. Their latest triumph in the face of difficult challenges has placed them two wins away from making the NBA Finals for the second time in three years – a noteworthy accomplishment for a franchise which was widely considered to be in basketball purgatory just half a decade ago.

When Miami visited the TD Garden in Boston on Saturday, their surrounding circumstances weren’t ideal. For starters, the Boston Celtics’ home floor has historically been challenging grounds for the Heat, dating back to the Big 3 days. Every road win there, regular or postseason, has been hard-earned.

Additionally, the top seed in the East was coming off a beatdown on their own floor, playing with a returning veteran floor general whose hamstring isn’t 100%, and lost their superstar midway through the battle to knee inflammation. PJ Tucker, the closest you can call to an “ultimate warrior” in the Heat, required stem treatment on his own knee the morning of the contest.

“The competition is that intense that it’s creating that adversity,” Erik Spoelstra would say post-game.

But if there was any game to personify what Miami’s touted “culture” is about, this would be it.

Their culture boils down to resiliency.

“I love the energy we came with,” Tucker said. “Everybody who stepped on the court gave it everything they had. We’ve been doing that all year. That’s just part of our culture.”

Jimmy Butler, who played only the first two quarters, has mentioned numerous times in post-game press conference that if his team “gets stops” and doesn’t worry too much about the shots they miss, they’ll be in good position to win.

This wasn’t how they played in game two, which explains Butler’s frustrations on the bench afterwards. To re-take the series lead, the Heat went back to their core principle: winning “in the mud.” That meant, among other components, helping and recovering on rotations, fighting on the boards, and creating opportunities on the fly.

Series Stats

Miami Statistic Boston
Miami Statistic Boston
15 Fastbreak Points 8
48 Paint Points 34
9 (9) Turnovers (Opponent Points off TOs) 24 (33)
8.40% TOV% 22.40%

The Celtics finished with 24 giveaways. Their co-stars, Jayson Tatum and Jalen Brown, combined for 13 of them. Tucker, Bam Adebayo, Victor Oladipo, and Kyle Lowry did as well as they can to keep Boston’s bigger line-up in front, and providing aid when a teammate was beat to the paint.

Oladipo is the unsung hero. After not playing a minute in the first half, he admirably filled in for Butler, especially on the defensive end. Spoelstra said Vic wasn’t substituted in because of the rotational changes from Lowry’s return – and perhaps because they built a lead of as much as 26 – but was ready both mentally and physically to fill the void left by the team’s best player.

“He’s just steady. Stays the course. He’s made himself available. Made himself vulnerable through this whole process,” Spoelstra said. “He’s prepared behind the scenes. His minutes in the second half were so important defensively against their two studs, and then offensively, he just gave us a facsimile of a lot of the stuff we do with Jimmy. And I mean that as the ultimate compliment.”

Oladipo finished with 4 steals in 20 minutes. His ability to stay in front of both Brown and Tatum and poke at the ball when they couldn’t shake him provided even more steal opportunities for teammates. Miami finished with 19 total takeaways, a franchise-record, and a huge component of the 33 points they scored off Celtics turnovers.

Vic’s contributions were a partial cut of what Miami’s role players needed to do to keep the lead after Butler was ruled out. When the Cs got within one late in the fourth, Max Strus, like he does occasionally, hit a massive three-pointer off pin-downs which turned the complexion of the whole game. On the next play, he got a stop on Brown, who had the hot hand and finished with 40, paving the way for Bam’s game-sealing jumper.

On the other end, Tucker took on Tatum as his main defensive responsibility and contained him to a 10-point, 3-of-14 shooting night. Caleb Martin was instrumental whenever they played zone. Lowry was running the offense like a basketball quarterback: feeding the hot hand, pushing in transition, creating opportunistic turnovers, and scoring when needed.

And as far as “welcome to these Playoffs” performances go, Bam Adebayo was every bit the potential superstar many envision him to be – including his teammates.

Miami’s max-contract big man finished with 31 points on 15-of-22 shooting, the attempts a career high, and something that should maintain as this series goes on. He also had 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals, and a block. His +17 difference was a game-high.

Celtics vs Butler

Celtics Players this series when defended by Jimmy Butler (Min: 5 FGA) FG
Celtics Players this series when defended by Jimmy Butler (Min: 5 FGA) FG
Jaylen Brown 2-9 (22.2%)
Jayson Tatum 2-7 (28.6%)
Marcus Smart 1-5 (20%)
Payton Pritchard 3-5 (60%)

Bam was aggressive from the get-go, thanks in part to good set-ups from Lowry and Tyler Herro in the nail, and seeing the ball go in. The responsibility he shouldered without Jimmy was even more impressive than the numbers. When the Heat needed a big rebound, big stop, or even a big shot, Adebayo not only accepted the assignment, but also thrived in doing so.

The Celtics couldn’t find an answer for him in their conference finals two years ago. As of Game 3 in ’22, that’s might still be the case. We’ll know for sure if and when Robert Williams returns in the series, because his absence was magnified on Saturday. The only thing that seems to stop Bam, however, is Bam.

“We need Bam to be aggressive and make plays for himself and for everybody else,” Tucker said. “The way our team is built, he triggers the most out of everybody. His versatility just opens everything up for everybody.”

Boston shot 30 free throws to Miami’s 14, which is a number that only went up because of the late-game fouls. Plenty of 50-50 calls went the Celtics’ way. Miami stayed the course, a tough task against that rabid crowd which was ignited by Marcus Smart and Tatum’s dramatic hallway returns from injuries.

The setting was there for Boston – an epic comeback to take command of these conference finals, their fan-favorite players fighting through pain to steal victory, and a battered opponent holding on for life.

Instead, Miami exited ahead 2-1 with the chance to put a collar on this series by winning Game 4 on Monday. The pressure is flipped. That task will be far from easy against a Celtics side playing with their season on the line, but repeatedly, this modern generation of Heatles have surpassed expectations, so it would be in character for them to somehow find a way to win both games in Boston.

When missed games threatened to derail their season, the Heat developed the depth and chemistry from the bench to put their main guys in position to secure the top seed later in the season when they returned.

When Lowry couldn’t contribute much after injuring his hammy in the Atlanta series, Miami didn’t miss a beat and re-adjusted on the fly.

When Boston stole homecourt – and somehow convinced the general consensus that this series might be over – Miami took it back right away, despite missing Butler, who can make a case as having played the best basketball this postseason.

“Something about this team is just that we have guys that are hard workers,” Lowry explained. “Udonis [Haslem] always says we all got it the hard way, all of us. A lot of undrafted guys, a lot of lower-round-pick guys, second-round guys. We all found ways to make this our living and found ways to do our job at a high level and to be here and to stay. That’s big for us.”

Collectively, the Heat is a team that’s unfazed, because it’s an innate quality in the individuals that make them up, starting from the master head coach who earned his stripes the hard way, down to the players who all have a reason to see themselves as underdogs.

When the going gets tough – and gets in the mud – that’s where Miami continues to thrive.

10 down, 6 to go.