BOSTON — It was over. Finished. The Celtics won. The Heat lost. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were headed to their first Finals. Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry were headed home. Draymond Green was preparing for Boston. The NBA was, too. More than 19,000 fans packed TD Garden for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Friday night expecting a coronation. They left with their team headed back to Miami—one loss away from elimination.
Butler did it. Ten years ago LeBron James took the same floor, stared down the same crowd and fended off conference finals elimination with a 45-point performance that would (briefly) define him. On Saturday, Butler, his knee sore, his team battered, stepped up and delivered 47 of his own. He made 55% of his shots. He made 50% of his threes. He made all 11 free throws and came within one rebound and two assists of a triple-double.
“F---ing incredible,” Lowry said.
“Jimmy brought his competitive will tonight,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “It was a will that would not let us lose.”
Who could have seen this coming? In Game 3, Butler scored eight points, leaving at halftime with a knee injury. In Game 4, he scored six. He chipped in 13 in Game 5, playing so passively that afterwards Celtics coach Ime Udoka matter-of-factly declared that Butler wasn’t looking to score. His bum knee had robbed him of his lift. Of his explosiveness. Seemingly of his confidence.
On Friday, it all came back.
The signs were there early. Midway through the first quarter, Butler knocked down his first three. But it wasn’t that he hit it. It was how, elevating well beyond the three-point line. Minutes later, he canned another. He played all 12 minutes in the first quarter, collecting 14 points that helped stake Miami to a seven-point lead.
“Just being aggressive,” Butler said.
He needed to be. Before the game, P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris approached Butler in the locker room. “We need 50 tonight”, they said. Butler just nodded. “I was like, ‘oh yeah, he’s about to play,’” said Tucker. Hours earlier, Butler took a call from Dwyane Wade, his ex-teammate. “He was telling me I can do this,” Butler said. “Knee is banged up, but nobody cares. Go out there and continue to build your legacy. That meant the world to me … D-Wade never hits me until his voice is really, really needed. And it was.”
The rest of the way, Butler was magnificent. Boston has the NBA’s best defense. For much of the game, Butler stared down Marcus Smart, the NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year. It didn’t matter. Butler cut right through it. He got to the basket. He finished at the rim. With two minutes to play he knocked down a driving layup that stretched Miami’s lead to three. With 41 seconds left he drilled a 20-footer with the shot clock expiring to swell it to six. Whenever the Celtics seemed poised to seize control, Butler was there to rip it back.
“Sometimes you need your great players to make plays,” Spoelstra said. “It’s not a matter of schematics. His competitive will is as high as anyone who’s ever played this game.”
It wasn’t just Butler. Max Strus (13 points) made shots. Tucker grinded out 11 points in 25 minutes. Then there was Lowry. Entering the game, Lowry looked finished. In Game 4, Lowry scored three points. In Game 5, he didn’t score any. The hamstring injury that sidelined him for the first two games of this series seemed to linger. Publicly, Spoelstra was being urged to bench him. Yet in Game 6, there was Lowry, playing 37 minutes. He scored 18 points. He shot poorly from the floor (5-for-14) but was solid from three (4-for-9). He handed out 10 assists, picking up his first double-double of the playoffs.
“I can’t say enough about Kyle,” Spoelstra said. “His veteran leadership, his poise. It means so much to us. You can’t put an analytic to it, to what it means to your team. The feeling of calm and confidence that he can give everybody. And that’s orchestrating our offense, it’s those timely moments in the key times of the game when the ball needs to go where it needs to go. Sometimes he’ll just make a big time play at the end of the clock. Something that he maybe never practiced or attempted before. He just has a flair for the moment. He just knows how to manage a game.”
It’s off to Miami for Game 7 on Sunday, and who knows what to expect? As brilliant as the Heat were, the Celtics were equally dreadful. Boston’s vaunted defense allowed Miami to shoot 46.2% from the floor. It let the Heat connect on 42.9% of their threes. Jayson Tatum had 30 points but took just one shot in the fourth quarter. Al Horford was 1-for-8 from the floor. Marcus Smart was 1-for-9 from three. "We’re frustrated,” said Derrick White, who had his best night of the series with 22 points. “But if it was easy, it wouldn’t be us.”
Indeed. The Celtics have been resilient in these playoffs. They took Games 4 and 6 in Milwaukee to win the last series. And they have won two games already on the Heat’s home floor. As brilliant as Butler was on Friday, it’s fair to wonder if he has another superlative performance in him. Meanwhile the Celtics have to believe that Smart has a better game in him and Grant Williams won’t collect more fouls (four) than points (two) again. Asked about his confidence level headed into Game 7, Tatum said, "Scale of 1 to 10? Ten."
A series that has been defined by lopsided scores is suddenly the playoffs’ most compelling. “Game 7,” Spoelstra said. “Best two words in sports.” Miami looked finished after a 20-point home loss on Wednesday. Boston was equally awful on Friday. It will be its turn to try to bounce back.
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