By Joe Wharton, Jay King, Steve Buckley and Jared Weiss
BOSTON – The Miami Heat aren’t the average eighth seed. Now they are the historic no. Three more wins to clinch 8th place.
The Heat beat the Boston Celtics 123-116 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday behind Jimmy Butler’s 35 points and Bam Adebayo’s 20 points.
Miami is seeking to become the second team in NBA history and the eighth seed since the 1999 New York Knicks to reach the Finals.
“You’re getting ahead of yourself,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said when pointed above.
Maybe. A game does not make a streak. But, again, Heat is a regular number by any means. 8 What does the seed look like?
A year ago at this time, they were the No. 1 seed, and it would be a close, bitter loss in seven games to the same Celtics team. Butler is one of the best playoff performers in the Heat’s storied history, and past champion Kyle Lowry now anchors Miami’s bench.
It will be the third time these two teams have met in the conference finals in the past four seasons, and Miami’s 10th appearance in a conference final overall.
The Heat have struggled with injuries and lineup questions this regular season, but have already knocked off No. 1 seed Milwaukee in the first round, lost just twice so far in the postseason, and won Game 1 in all three series.
They are not bottom dwellers.
“Everybody counting us out from the beginning builds that chip (on our shoulder),” Adebayo said. “I feel like we’re one of the best teams in the league right now because adversity made us.”
Game 2 is Friday at TD Garden in Boston at 8:30 p.m.
Butler was 12-of-25 shooting with seven assists, five boards and six steals. It was his 17th playoff game with at least 30 points since joining the Heat four seasons ago, and his 11th consecutive playoff game with at least 25 points. Butler is the fifth player in NBA history to do so, joining Michael Jordan (8), Allen Iverson (3), Russell Westbrook (3), and Rick Barry (2).
Adebayo plays a very different role in this series compared to the 2022 conference finals. The offense revolved around him, and he dished out five assists to go along with his eight boards. Adebayo tied LeBron James for most consecutive playoff games in franchise history with at least eight rebounds (10).
Max Struss, Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin and Lowry each scored 15 points for Miami.
The Celtics, who defeated the 76ers in Sunday’s Game 7 to reach this point, led 66-57 at halftime and the Heat outscored 40-16 in the paint. They outscored Miami by 46 points in the third quarter.
“I thought the first half was good, and in the third quarter we got off the ropes and lost that sense of urgency,” Boston coach Joe Mazzulla said. “We were ready and then we let go. … We have to be ready that when we outplay them they’re going to respond and we have to respond.
Jayson Tatum is coming off the best Game 7 in NBA history, leading the Celtics with 30 points on 9-of-17 shooting. Jaylen Brown added 22 points and Malcolm Brockton added 19 points.
3-point shooting is among the Heat’s odds this season compared to last season. The top 3-point shooting team in the league in 2022, Miami regressed dramatically in that category during the regular season. The Heat found their stroke, and shot 16-of-31 from deep in Game 1.
The game was decided by the Celtics, who were second in the NBA with 43 3-point attempts per game, 10-of-29 from beyond the arc.
“I felt like they had a ton in the first half,” Spoelstra said. “I felt like they had more, but we know that’s a big part of what they do. We’re trying to take some of that away, but it’s tough.
The Celtics couldn’t stop Butler, the supporting cast
After a long streak with a sluggish 76ers, the Celtics didn’t adjust well to Miami’s rushing attack. Even in a first half in which Boston ended with a nine-point lead, Lowry punished the Celtics multiple times early in the shot clock. Philadelphia often prefers isolation. The Heat did some of that in Game 1, but without any stagnation. They scored efficiently throughout the first half, then hit Boston with a 46-25 third-quarter haymaker.
The Celtics took nothing away. They allowed 54.1-percent shooting from the field, including 51.6-percent 3-point shooting. Butler scored 35 points on 12-of-25 shooting, and the Celtics couldn’t contain his supporting cast either. They had chances late on but squandered them. — King
3rd Quarter DD cuts to Gordon
Brown gave Celtics fans some tsk-tsking heading into Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, saying they need to bring more energy. What they did. But the third quarter of tonight’s game (and the eventual Tatum turnover) showed why fans might lose that energy: There’s always the fear that the Celtics are going to do something horribly wrong, not just for a play or two. — Buckley
The Celtics had the worst quarter imaginable and somehow found themselves within striking distance late in this game. Then Tatum threw it away. Then Tatum let go of his feet and stopped shooting it before coming back down. Boston was close, but would step on its own shoelaces when it had a chance to turn things around. The Celtics will use enough physicality to keep Butler from separating. — Weiss
Can Boston bounce back?
Boston has the talent to win the series, but the Heat showed the difference between a team winning three quarters and a team playing 48 minutes. Miami gives up cross-matches all the time, but the Heat have been connected throughout the game and Miami’s stars have a consistency that can’t be matched. The Celtics’ best players looked a bit unsure at times, which coincided with a complete lapse in defensive focus and pressure in the third quarter.
The NBA is designed to punish teams that can’t keep pace on defense, but the Heat are built to destroy them. Now the gutsy eighth seed we’ve seen leads the conference finals. — Weiss
(Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)