MIAMI — The past several days must have been hard for the conspiracy-minded who theorize the many ways the NBA is fixed.
Next, LeBron James and the A-list Los Angeles Lakers lost for a third straight time to a Denver team led by an understated Serbian star. Then, the third game of the Eastern Conference finals further debunked those theories. The mighty, mighty eighth-seeded Miami Heat spent Sunday evening unraveling the Boston Celtics with a 128-102 win to build a 3-0 series lead. After the weekend’s slate of games, both the Heat and the Nuggets hold overwhelming leads in their conference finals.
No NBA team has ever come back from a three-games-to-none deficit. Bad news for the league’s legacy teams, the Celtics and the Lakers, who face such a hole. But reassuring for anyone who roots on randomness and variety, now that a Finals matchup nobody expected appears on the horizon.
Certainly, the league wasn’t anticipating promoting the likes of Gabe Vincent during its marquee event in June. Nor should it have been preparing a Cinderella narrative out of a Miami team that nearly stumbled into obscurity throughout the regular season, with its underperforming offense and unimpressive record. The Heat, as it has been so frequently repeated over the past month, had one foot in Cabo before earning the final play-in spot. And though Miami players now have recaptured the swagger and ethos of the franchise’s ballyhooed “culture,” it’s hard to believe that even the Heat could picture the Heat on the verge of the 2023 Finals. Its players try to sound convincing about it anyway.
“The ups and downs prepared us for these moments. They prepared us for going 11-3 in the postseason. You know, still having a great opportunity to go further in this playoff run,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said. “So for us, it’s not shocking, because y’all not around, but y’all don’t see the work that a lot of guys put in. And it’s speaking volumes right now in this postseason. So for us, I don’t believe it’s a surprise or a shocker.”
Adebayo, along with Jimmy Butler, has all-star credentials. Any team with that kind of duo should never be discounted. But surrounding those stars with players the average fan couldn’t name while still embarrassing the East’s elite — that’s the astounding part.
Adebayo may take some offense to the Heat not receiving constant attention — the way “y’all” might have gobbled up every juicy bit of news about the Celtics or Lakers. But who could blame anyone outside of Miami-Dade County for not caring about a team that ranked 25th in offensive rating (the five teams beneath the Heat were lottery-bound) and limped to the finish line with a 4-4 record before the play-in? After finishing first in the East a year ago, Miami seemed to regress. But to hear the players tell it now, they were just getting ready.
“This has been one of the most interesting and gratifying regular seasons,” Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “I’m not talking about the postseasons, but just to be able to go through that struggle together, and come out of it with a group that was pure of intention and then trying to get better, and then see it play out in the playoffs, that’s ultimately what you would love a regular season to do for you.”
While the Heat faded out of the spotlight, players were finding themselves. Stabilized by more than just Butler, the offense improved as shots began to fall. Through 14 postseason games, the Heat has the second-best offensive rating behind Denver’s. Someone such as Vincent — for those new to the 2022-23 Heat, he was the guy who took over Game 3, confidently pulling up for jumpers while attempting more shots than Abebayo and Butler — always seems to step up when necessary. And the importance of Vincent’s game-high 29 points Sunday night in the absence of injured rotational players Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo cannot be overstated.
“It’s his assertiveness and aggressiveness and reading the game,” Spoelstra said. “I thought he had as much of an impact and put his fingerprints on the win in Game 2 as he did [Sunday]. One of the games he had [nine] points; another game he had 29. And he has that emotional stability to — you know, he sees guys like Jimmy and Bam, who are the perfect role models. Coming in as a young player, it’s about impacting winning, and sometimes it’s about making the right play and doing it on both ends of the court. That’s tough to do as a young player because so much is celebrated on just that last number on the box score.”
A year ago, Boston toppled the then-top seeded Heat on its home floor in Game 7. Now, the second-seeded Celtics, who improved on last season’s record, have been thoroughly outworked and out-coached by the surging Heat. On Sunday, the Celtics initially traded buckets with Miami, showing some desperation. But with Butler hunting the smaller Derrick White in defensive matchups, the counters failing to work, the Heat draining threes and the deficit beginning to balloon, Boston checked out — of the game and possibly the series.
“[It] was tough,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said. “I think from the beginning of the game, we were turning the ball over. We didn’t shoot the ball well. They shot the ball extremely well. Just kind of felt like we never recovered, honestly. That’s on all of us as a unit. We didn’t play well at all. Obviously by the score, it showed.”
By the second quarter, a chant no one could have imagined a month ago carried through the upper deck and down to the lower bowl of Kaseya Center: “Let’s get the sweep!” That would be bad for Adam Silver and worse for the cranks who think his league is fixed. But no theory is about to get in the way of an eighth seed like this.