BOSTON — The Miami Heat may have to make room in Championship Alley.
It’s the name of the path that leads from their home field to the locker room filled with wall-sized memories of the grandeur of Miami’s past. Gary Payton’s jumper who started his comeback in the 2006 Finals. Blood dripping down Udonis Haslem’s face in the fourth quarter of a vital playoff game. LeBron James’ icy gaze in the iconic first quarter of his 45-point masterpiece to win Game 6 at Boston in 2012. And many more.
Heat president Pat Riley occasionally leads guests on the long walk, stopping in front of the huge images above the dark red carpet to tell the stories.
Perhaps the next Friday night photo on the wall is of Jimmy Butler getting up in front of the Boston Celtics bench playing his 46th minute of a Game 6 playoff that was instantly etched in the history books. . Marcus Smart, the 2021-22 Defensive Player of the Year, and Derrick White, the potential hero of a comeback, watched Butler soar through the air. Everyone at TD Garden stood, their eyes glued to Butler.
Two days earlier, he couldn’t jump that high. Four days ago, forget it. But that night, his ailing right knee, which had begun to improve over the past two days after aggressive treatment and as much rest as possible, allowed it. Butler made the crushing jumper from 20 feet with 43 seconds left, sealing the Heat’s 111-103 victory to force a Game 7 on Sunday (8:30 p.m. on ESPN).
“I don’t pay too much attention to the crowd. I want to win,” Butler said. “I want to play basketball the right way. I will do whatever my team, my teammates need me to do.”
Jimmy Butler continues his masterful performance with that incredible bucket as the shot clock expires.
After aggravating his knee in Game 3 of this series — he struggled with a computer group issue throughout the playoffs — Butler was a shell of himself. He played when maybe he shouldn’t have, and it showed immediately. Its shine and lift were almost non-existent. Midway through Game 5, the Celtics defense openly admitted what anyone watching could see as Boston backed him off and paid attention to others: Butler was no threat.
But just minutes into Game 6, Butler jumped into a passing lane for the first of four interceptions and beat everyone on the other end for the quick break score. Moments later, he exploded to his feet to grab a rebound in traffic. Instantly, another message was apparent: Butler was back – and so was the Heat.
Butler carried Miami throughout the game, racking up 47 points with nine rebounds and eight assists. After hitting the foul line a total of six times while limping in Games 3-5, he was there 11 times in Game 6. And he got through them all. He even made four 3-pointers, a season high.
When it was over, he was tied for the third most points in a road elimination game in 75 years of NBA history. He scored or assisted on 68 points, the most in a Conference Finals playoff game in history, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“Jimmy Butler is a great competitor, he really is,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You can define him in different ways, but his will to compete is as high as anyone who has played this game. He put his fingerprints on this game.”
Spoelstra, now a veteran of dozens of those high-stakes games (especially in Boston), has been steady and confident all week. Even as the Heat suffered losses in Games 4 and 5, struggling to break 80 points.
On Friday morning, as the Heat did a light workout at a health club near their hotel – and saw after a quick assessment that sixth man of the year Tyler Herro would miss a third straight game – Spoelstra was deep in his bag, knowing he would seize “a great opportunity” when he and his team “felt most alive”.
There was a gleam in Spoelstra’s eyes and a confidence in his demeanor. He lives his life with incredible discipline, aided by Riley’s guidance, and trains that way. He wears the same outfit every day and never stops doing the job regardless of his position.
That stability amid turmoil showed in Butler and the rest of the team. Kyle Lowry took to the field three and a half hours before kickoff in an attempt to loosen his ailing hamstrings, then battled his way to 18 points and 10 assists. After missing 19 straight 3-pointers in three games, Max Strus finally made a third-quarter desperation shot and then made two more.
“It’s not like I guaranteed anything. I just know how our guys are wired,” Spoelstra said hours later after his team secured the massive victory, his mood barely elevated. “What you’re hoping for is that it brings out the best in you and a different level. Over a long streak like this, you’re going to be pushed, uncomfortably. Sometimes you’re going to lose along the way. .”
The Heat couldn’t afford one more loss, and it seemed so likely that they were heading there. Even the pending Finals opponent assumed on national television, as Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors did on Thursday, that the Celtics would advance. They still could. Miami’s win on Friday night didn’t close the series – just another chance.
“We’ve said it all through the series, ‘it’s not over yet,'” Butler said. “We have Game 7 in the cradle.”