By Joe Vardon, Jay King, Steve Buckley and Jared Weiss
BOSTON — The Miami Heat are not the average eighth seed. And now they are three wins away from becoming a historic number 8.
The Heat beat the Boston Celtics 123-116 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday behind 35 points from Jimmy Butler and 20 points from Bam Adebayo.
Miami is trying to become the second team in NBA history and the first since the 1999 New York Knicks to advance to the Finals as the eighth seed.
“You’re getting ahead of yourself,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said when the above was brought to his attention.
Maybe. A game does not make a series. But, again, the Heat are by no means what a typical No. 8 seed looks like.
A year ago around this time, they were the No. 1 seed, locked in what would be a close and bitter seven-game loss to those same Celtics. Butler is one of the great playoff performers in the Heat’s illustrious history, and Kyle Lowry, a former champion, now anchors the Miami bench.
It’s the third time in the past four seasons that these two teams have met in the Conference Finals, and overall it’s Miami’s 10th appearance in the Conference Finals.
The Heat have struggled with injuries and roster issues this regular season, but have already knocked out No. 1 seed Milwaukee in the first round, lost just twice so far in the playoffs and won the first game of three series.
They are not bottom dwellers.
“Everyone counts us from the beginning builds this chip (on our shoulder),” Adebayo said. “Now I feel like we are one of the best teams in the league because adversity has made us.”
Game 2 is at 8:30 p.m. ET on Friday at TD Garden in Boston.
Butler shot 12 of 25 with seven assists, five rebounds and six steals. It was his 17th playoff game with at least 30 points since joining the Heat four seasons ago, and his 11th straight playoff game with at least 25 points. Butler is the fifth player in NBA history with multiple career playoff games of 30 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals. He joins 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 runs through him as a center and he has provided five assists to go along with his eight boards. Adebayo tied LeBron James for the most consecutive playoff games in franchise history with at least eight rebounds (10).
Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin and Lowry all scored 15 points apiece for Miami.
The Celtics, who reached this point by defeating the 76ers in Game 7 on Sunday, led 66-57 at halftime and outscored the Heat 40-16 in the paint. They coughed up 46 points at Miami in the third quarter.
“I thought the first half was good, and I thought we just let go of the rope in the third quarter, lost that sense of urgency,” Boston coach Joe Mazzulla said. “We were prepared, then we let go of the rope. … We must be prepared when we surpass them to respond and we must respond.
Jayson Tatum, coming off arguably the best Game 7 in NBA history, led the Celtics with 30 points on 9-of-17 shooting. Jaylen Brown added 22 points and Malcolm Brogdon added 19 off the bench.
Among the Heat’s anomalies this season versus last was 3-point shooting. The league’s best 3-point shooting team in 2022, Miami slipped dramatically in that category during the regular season. The Heat found their footing and, in Game 1, shot 16 of 31 from deep.
The Celtics, who were second in the NBA with 43 3-point attempts per game, were 10 of 29 from beyond the arc — that’s where this game was decided.
“It 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 try to take some out, but it’s difficult.
AthleticismInstant analysis of:
Celtics unable to stop Butler, supporting cast
After a long streak with the slow-paced 76ers, the Celtics didn’t adapt well to Miami’s faster attacks. Even in the first half, which Boston finished with a nine-point lead, Lowry punished the Celtics early on the clock several times. Philadelphia has often favored isolation. The Heat made some of it in Game 1, but without any stagnation. They scored effectively throughout the first half, then hit Boston with a 46-25 haymaker in the third quarter.
The Celtics took nothing away. They allowed 54.1% shots from the field, including 51.6% 3-point shots. Butler scored 35 points on 12-for-25 shooting, and the Celtics weren’t able to limit his supporting cast either. They had chances late but squandered them. — King
Third quarter deflates TD Garden
Brown delivered some tsk-tsking to Celtics fans ahead of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, saying they needed to bring more energy. What they did. But the third quarter of tonight’s game (and Tatum’s turnovers at the end) show why fans can lose that energy: there’s always that fear that the Celtics will do something horribly wrong, and not just for a game or two. — Buckley
The Celtics had the worst quarter imaginable and somehow found themselves within striking distance late in the game. Then Tatum threw it away. Then Tatum got off his feet and hesitated to shoot before coming back down. Boston was close, but would walk its own shoelaces when it had a chance to turn things around. The Celtics would use just enough physicality on Butler to keep him from tearing them apart. — Weiss
Can Boston bounce back?
Boston has the talent to win the series, but the Heat showed the difference between a team that wins three quarters and a team that plays 48 minutes. Miami gives up on crossover games all the time, but the Heat played the entire game and Miami’s stars have unparalleled persistence. The Celtics’ best players looked a little uncertain at times, which coincided with a complete disappointment in defensive focus and pressure in the third quarter.
The NBA is designed to punish teams that can’t keep up on defense, but the Heat is designed to destroy them. Now, the boldest eighth seed we’ve seen leads the conference finals. — Weiss
(Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)