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The Miami Heat lead the Boston Celtics by two with less than 10 seconds left in overtime Tuesday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, and Heat center Bam Adebayo’s head is on a swivel, between Tatum’s drive and Marcus Smart spotting up in the corner.
The Heat don’t want to allow a potentially game-winning 3-pointer, but by the time Tatum picks up the ball, Adebayo knows he has to meet him at the rim. Tatum thinks the lane is open. It is open. Before Adebayo’s feet ever leave the ground, Tatum’s reach is 10 feet high and rising with only open runaway and certain glory ahead of him. He is committed to dunking. Adebayo has to meet him at the mountaintop. There are no other means to stop the ball.
Did Tatum see Adebayo coming? Could he have?
This looks like a disaster for Miami. Tatum, a silhouette of Air Jordan, Butler watching, and Adebayo cramped together like he needs to go to the restroom. But he’s really gathering force.
Tatum’s flight path from the “launching pad” — the area in the paint the Heat lure opponents to — takes 0.5 seconds. Adebayo meets him there in 0.2 seconds and blocks, at the latest possible moment, Tatum’s vicious game-winning dunk attempt with his off-hand.
Magic Johnson calls it the best defensive play he’s seen in postseason history. After the game, Adebayo says it was the best play of his career. The moment is, for the All-Star who is now Mr. Everything — passing, scoring and guarding every position — a return to brass tacks, a culmination of sports. “Having that moment,” says Adebayo, “I kinda flashed back to my rookie year, where all I did was play defense and provide energy.”
The block defies physics, as though Adebayo froze time and caught up to the action before clicking “play” on the remote again.
“It looked like [Tatum] had an open lane to the rim,” says Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “And sometimes when you have great competition like this, you just have to make plays that you can’t even really explain.”
Explosions like the one that spawned Adebayo’s lift-off to the rim are impossible to miss, with the way they forcefully re-arrange reality. But they’re difficult to comprehend or measure.
Doesn’t mean nobody’s tried.
A teenage Adebayo strolled into the 2015 Adidas Nation Camp looking like a man among boys. Staffers at Peak Performance Project (P3) tested his “peak concentric force,” which, in layman’s terms, measures how hard an athlete is pushing against the ground when he jumps. As a high schooler, Adebayo’s accelerative force ranked in the 90th percentile against the NBA athletes P3 tested.
That’s enough to crush bones, enough to squat against a boat and maybe even move it an inch. Imagine rocket emojis coming out of his legs. Fine, I’ll do it for you.
I asked Butler if, from his vantage point, he thought Adebayo could make the stop. He shook his head, but not to signal his disbelief at Adebayo’s athleticism, guts or dexterity. “Here?” he asks rhetorically. “Yeah, you have to be there. Bam knew that.”
“Here” does not refer to the geographical coordinates for Disney World, but rather the amorphous and omnipotent force of #HeatCulture that has followed this team on the 233-mile trek to Orlando like an overhead cloud raining gold and cash.
Heat players are expected to meet the moment. The defense depends on each player being held accountable for others’ mistakes. If that means conjuring something impossible, it’s probably because there was a screw-up elsewhere. A spectacular play, by definition, goes hand-in-hand with imperfection. Perfection doesn’t demand miracles. Perfection is clockwork, like what Adebayo did to Tatum a few possessions earlier, staying balanced in front of his crossover when Butler got beat, cutting off Tatum’s lane to the basket and forcing a turnaround fadeaway that bounced out of the rim and into teammate Tyler Herro’s fingertips.
“Bam was there, as he’s been a countless amount of times — for me, for everybody else,” Butler says. “He saved us.”
After the game, the team is a mix of awe and disappointment that the outcome hung on the flexibility of Adebayo’s ligaments.
— Jorge Sedano (@Sedano) September 16, 2020
Tatum’s dunk attempt sent Adebayo’s wrist 45 degrees back and then some, turning his hand into a cap above the rim. One could argue the block was a goaltend (I would never, but you could). Their hands looked like they were arm-wrestling with the ball in the middle, Adebayo’s wrist like an elbow that’s almost hit the surface, that’s almost waved the white flag, before springing back up for the win.
According to ESPN Stats and Info, this is the first time a potential game-tying or go-ahead dunk was blocked “in the final minute of a playoff game since the advent of play-by-play in 1996-97.”
When Butler says Adebayo saved him, he’s not kidding. There’s no chance Tatum would have missed the dunk if Adebayo hadn’t got there. To recognize defensive dominance, you often have to look at what isn’t there. Good defense is usually marked by the absence of perceptible offensive genius. But here, Adebayo visibly erases points off the board.
It was the closest a defensive play has ever gotten to mimicking the elements of a buzzer-beating shot — definitive, loud, escaping definition no matter the words until only one comes to mind: Bam.
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