His Miami Heat down six early in the fourth quarter, All-Star center Bam Adebayo flexed on the Boston Celtics, finishing with a career-high 32 points in a 125-113 victory to close the Eastern Conference finals.
Miami opens the NBA Finals on Wednesday against old friend LeBron James and his Los Angeles Lakers.
“That’s a great storyline, right?” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said on the ESPN broadcast. “Can you let us enjoy this for a little bit right now? This is hard to do. It’s hard to get to this point, and I want our guys to recognize that, acknowledge it, enjoy it for at least tonight, and then we’ll get on to that tomorrow.”
The Celtics, who led in the fourth quarter of each of the six games, took their last lead of the series with 6:53 remaining in Game 6, because Adebayo scored or assisted on his team’s next 11 points — the last of which came on a feed to Duncan Robinson for a 3-pointer that pushed Miami’s lead to 107-102.
Adebayo was the catalyst for a 26-6 run over a seven-minute stretch that transformed a 96-90 fourth-quarter deficit into an insurmountable 116-102 advantage with 2:40 left. With the game slipping away and the season hanging in the balance, Boston missed four straight threes, sandwiched around a turnover, and capped by a missed technical free throw. It would have been an astonishing collapse for a Celtics team that had scrapped its way to the lead, if they had not already blown bigger fourth-quarter leads in the series.
Adebayo added 14 boards and five assists to his 32 points. Miami got double-digit scoring from five others, including an unlikely 15 points on 5-for-5 shooting from 36-year-old trade acquisition Andre Iguodala, the ex-Golden State Warriors forward now making a sixth straight Finals appearance. Iguodala does so for the first time as an underdog opposite James, the man he defended en route to winning the 2015 Finals MVP.
“We’ve been in each other’s corner all year long, and it doesn’t stop here,” said Miami’s Jimmy Butler, the All-Star who will make his first Finals appearance in his first season in Miami. “We’ve got four more to go.”
Boston will be haunted by its fourth-quarter failures. The Celtics blew a 14-point last-quarter lead in Game 1, before Adebayo’s legendary block sealed Miami’s overtime victory. They fumbled a 17-point second-half lead in Game 2, and Tyler Herro torched them for 17 of his 37 points in the final quarter to snare Game 4.
The future is bright for the Celtics, who got 50 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists combined from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, their two 23-and-under stars. Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker each added 20 points. But youth was no excuse for a team appearing in its third conference finals in four years. Adebayo is 23 years old, and Herro is 20. This was a test of both teams’ championship mettle, and Miami had more.
All in all, the Celtics were outscored by 28 points over 19 clutch minutes (score within five in the game’s final five minutes) in the six-game set. They shot 9-for-29 from the field (1-for-13 from three) in the clutch. Meanwhile, the Heat made 17 of their 29 shots in those same minutes, including seven of their 15 threes.
Struggling to find an answer for Adebayo, Boston coach Brad Stevens did not trust his young centers, and it cost him. He brought veteran Enes Kanter off the bench with a first-quarter lead and pulled him down nine five minutes later. Second-year center Robert Williams helped the Celtics get back in the game in the final minutes of the first half, and he never touched the floor after halftime. With starting center Daniel Theis facing foul trouble and his team trailing 82-74 late in the third quarter, Stevens called on rookie Grant Williams, whose energy inspired a 22-8 run that gave Boston a six-point lead 2:45 into the fourth quarter. Theis returned midway through the fourth, fouled Adebayo twice more, and the floodgates were opened.
A closing lineup of Adebayo, Butler, Herro, Robinson and Iguodala collectively stomped Boston in the game’s final five minutes, all scoring on a 13-0 run that was equal parts brilliant on offense and defense.
Credit the Heat. Few saw them reaching the Finals at season’s start, and their fifth seed reflected a long-shot status, but they have been a different animal in Orlando. They were built for the bubble, forged by physical and mental toughness, superior conditioning and an absence of fear in the face of pressure. They carry it all against James, one of the most physically and mentally tough, best-conditioned and fearless players in the history of the game — a superstar who twice made the Heat a champion earlier this decade.
“We’ve been underdogs our whole life,” Adebayo said after Miami won its first of five conference titles since 2010 without James. “Everybody up here’s got a chip on his shoulder from something, so it’s a toss-up when we get in the Finals. We’re not backing down from anybody, and that’s what I like about this team.”
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