Heat stomp Celtics in G7, become second No. 8 seed to make Finals

BOSTON -- Jimmy Butler called his shot.

A year to the day after Butler vowed to get the Miami Heat over the hump following a hard-fought Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics in the 2022 Eastern Conference finals, he made good on his promise.

Miami joined the 1999 New York Knicks as the second No. 8 seed to make the NBA Finals after a dominant 103-84 victory over Boston in Game 7 of the conference finals on Monday night.

"Figure out a way to be consistent," Butler had said after that Game 7 defeat in 2022 -- one that ended with him missing a 3-pointer that would have potentially won Miami the game. "I think we had enough, I think we do have enough ... next year, we will have enough and we're going to be right back in this same situation and we're going to get it done."

He was right.

Butler's words have proved prophetic throughout the Heat's magical run this postseason. He scored 28 points, grabbed seven rebounds and made six assists in 43 minutes in Monday's Game 7, earning the Larry Bird Trophy as the Eastern Conference finals MVP.

"I just know why Coach Pat [Riley] and Coach [Erik Spoelstra] wanted me to be here," Butler said after Monday's win, when asked about his comments from a year ago. "And that's to compete at a high level and to win championships.

"I know that the group that they put around me at all times is going to give me an opportunity to do so. ... I know the work that we all put into it, so I know what we're capable of. Nobody is satisfied. We haven't done anything. We don't play just to win the Eastern Conference; we play to win the whole thing."

While Butler paced the group Monday night, Caleb Martin -- who didn't play in last year's Game 7 -- stole the show with another huge outing for the Heat, scoring 26 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in 45 minutes. Martin had clutch performances throughout this series and went 11-for-16 from the field in Game 7.

After an initial push by the Celtics to start the game in front of a rabid TD Garden crowd, the Heat got up by as many as 17 in the first half, never letting Boston all the way back as their defense held tough all night. The Celtics took an early blow when star Jayson Tatum turned his left ankle on the opening possession of the game and appeared to struggle with the injury over the remainder of the contest. He finished with 14 points on 13 shots in 42 minutes.

The rest of the Celtics labored to score, as well, as the team finished 9-for-42 on 3-pointers.

The Heat, meanwhile, made 50% of their 3-pointers in Game 7 -- and they are now set to face their biggest test in Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets starting on Thursday in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

"There's no way to quantify the confidence that he can instill in everybody," Spoelstra said of Butler. "And you know, Jimmy has never had to apologize. I don't want him to ever apologize for who he is and how he approaches competition. It's intense. It's not for everybody, and we're not for everybody. That's why we think it's like an incredible marriage. We never judge him on that. He doesn't judge us for how crazy we get. It's the same language. But the confidence level that he can create for everybody on the roster is incredible.

"He's gnarly, but he knows how to have a soft touch to give somebody some confidence at the right time. That's the special gift that he has."

"I don't call them role players; I call them teammates, because your role can change any given day."
Jimmy Butler on the Heat's culture

With Butler leading the way, the Heat went on the most improbable postseason run in recent memory, one in which they made history -- and avoided it, by not becoming the first NBA team to blow a 3-0 lead in a playoff series.

After losing the first game of the play-in tournament to the Atlanta Hawks last month, the Heat were on the verge of not even making the playoffs after falling behind late to the Chicago Bulls during the second play-in game. That's when Butler took over. He finished with 31 points in that tilt -- and he hasn't stopped dominating since.

Butler put together arguably the best performance of his career during Game 4 versus the No. 1-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, scoring 56 points and grabbing nine rebounds in a 119-114 win. It was another sign of things to come for Butler and the Heat as he led them on one of the most impressive revenge tours.

The Heat knocked out Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in five games during the first round. Then Miami took out Tom Thibodeau, Butler's former coach, and the No. 5-seeded New York Knicks in six games. Next came the Celtics, the same team that beat Miami last year.

At each turn, Butler and his team rose to the occasion, a feat made even more impressive while playing without injured guards Tyler Herro (hand) and Victor Oladipo (knee). Herro broke his right hand in Game 1 of the Bucks series; he has started to do more shooting in his rehab work, and he sounded hopeful he would return at some point in the Finals.

Aside from Butler's brilliance, the Heat have received contributions from up and down the roster. Martin is playing with the kind of confidence that has defined this Heat run. Gabe Vincent, Max Strus and Duncan Robinson all hit big shots at various points in the Celtics series, while center Bam Adebayo served as a defensive anchor despite inconsistent offensive performances.

"I definitely reflect on where I started and the journey it's taken to get here," Martin said. "I also understand that we have four more. The job is not done. We didn't go through what we went through all the regular season and my personal journey to stop here."

That the Heat were able to rebound emotionally from a heartbreaking Game 6 loss -- in which Celtics guard Derrick White rebounded a Marcus Smart miss and laid it in at the buzzer for a 104-103 win to keep the series alive -- speaks to the mental toughness Spoelstra has praised his team for throughout the postseason. He was confident coming into Monday's game that his group had gotten over the tough loss and would play well. He was rewarded throughout Game 7, as the Heat responded to every challenge along the way.

With Spoelstra calling the shots and making adjustments on the fly, the Heat maintained the belief they could win the series and were buoyed by the hardworking, no-excuses culture that Spoelstra and Riley have built for years in Miami.

"When a guy goes down, the next guy could fill in that gap and do exactly what that guy that went down did -- and do it at a high level," Butler said when discussing the Heat's culture. "Then be humble enough to know that when that guy comes back, you've got to take a step back and get back in your role. Nobody ever complains. They always do exactly what you ask of them to do, which is why you want to play with guys like that, which is why they are the reason we win so many games.

"I don't call them role players; I call them teammates, because your role can change any given day."

The Heat continue to give all they have behind the example that Butler provides on a daily basis. The confidence and belief Butler's play has instilled within the Heat's locker room is palpable. They trust him to deliver in the biggest moments for a team that now sits four wins away from its first NBA championship since 2013.

"He's playing at a phenomenal level," veteran Heat guard Kyle Lowry said of Butler. "We ride with him. And I think he rides with us, if that makes sense. He doesn't get upset if guys shoot shots; he just wants everyone to be successful and contribute to winning no matter what it is. He can do it sometimes by himself, but he knows that he needs help sometimes, and he instills the power of us to help him."