In the NBA postseason, there’s often a team that discovers its potential along the way. It learns who it is, banks on its strengths and builds confidence with each win.
The Toronto Raptors accomplished that in the 2019 playoffs, and in the Year of the Bubble, the Miami Heat are that team.
For the second time in two games, Miami roared back from a double-digit second-half deficit to shock the Boston Celtics. Their 106-101 victory gives them a 2-0 lead over Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.
As has frequently been the case since the breakup of the Big Three in 2014, the Heat this season were an appealing collection of overachievers. This is a team that started in its backcourt two undrafted guards — one a rookie, the other with 15 games of service coming into the season. Their best playmaker in the starting unit was an undersized center, and their starting power forward in the bubble has been a throw-in to balance the books in a midseason trade.
From a team-building standpoint, it was impressive — the kind of resourcefulness demonstrated by solid NBA organizations — but nothing about the Heat’s regular season screamed NBA Finalist. Yet the way things are looking in Florida, give it another week and that improbability might become a reality.
If a team has a collective understanding of what it is, it’s because individual players understand their roles. That Heat attribute was on full display in Thursday night’s win. Marksman Duncan Robinson’s mandate is to never stop shooting — he drained four 3-pointers in the first 10 minutes.
Bam Adebayo is to make plays for teammates out of the high post and steamroll to the basket — check and check.
Jimmy Butler makes winning plays in the fourth quarter and plays all-NBA D. Goran Dragic buzzes around the floor and lets it fly with his lefty stroke. Jae Crowder holds opposing wings at bay. Tyler Herro reminds the world he has ball skills and rebounding chops.
Check. Check. Check. Check.
Since he took over for Pat Riley in 2008, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has been fond of saying that the defense works when “everybody is on a string.” Time and again in the second half, Boston tripped over that string, as the Heat’s active zone confounded a Celtics offense that scored with abandon in the first half. The zone is all the rage in the Eastern Conference this summer, but Miami’s model rarely leaks, minding the perimeter, picking up cutters and accounting for the glass.
These are the kinds of advanced tasks that championship teams do exceptionally well. The Heat are mastering them with greater fluency each passing day.
— Kevin Arnovitz
Bam Adebayo’s encore was a dunk fest
As each postseason game passes, Bam Adebayo offers a reminder of how good he is now — and how much better he’s going to become.
After a Game 1 performance that included one of the best defensive plays in NBA playoff history — a game-saving block of Jayson Tatum in the closing seconds of overtime — Adebayo turned around Game 2 for the Heat in the third quarter on the offensive end.
After scoring just four points in the first half and struggling to find his rhythm, Adebayo dominated the third, rattling off 15 points and imposing his will as the Heat outscored the Celtics 37-17. According to ESPN Stats and Information tracking, Adebayo was 6-for-6 on cuts to the basket in the third quarter. Each one of those shots was assisted and four were uncontested.
As has been the case throughout the season, Adebayo’s activity on both ends of the floor got the Heat going and brought them all the way back from a lackluster first half. The best news for the Heat is that Adebayo followed a huge moment in Game 1 by creating another showcase for himself. He had two huge rebounds in the final 30 seconds and finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and two steals in 35 minutes.
Adebayo doesn’t seem afraid of the moment, and his intensity continues to pay dividends for a Miami team that is firing on all cylinders at the best possible time.
— Nick Friedell
Kemba struggles to keep up with Dragic
The biggest question coming into Game 2 was whether Celtics All-Star guard Kemba Walker would bounce back from a dreadful showing in Game 1. Walker was much better in Game 2, finishing with 23 points in 34 minutes. But the biggest story of this game was the continuing return of The Dragon for the Heat.
Goran Dragic once again was the difference down the stretch in a playoff game. Between drawing a pair of free throws that put Miami ahead for good and hitting a pair of stepback jumpers — including a dagger 3-pointer as the shot clock expired over the extended arm of Celtics center Daniel Theis — Dragic made every play Miami needed, just as he did in the Heat’s five-game upset of the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Walker, meanwhile, was the one called for the blocking foul on those Dragic free throws, and then missed a potential go-ahead 3-pointer on the next possession.
It was that matchup where this series was thought it could potentially swing — just not in the way it has. While Dragic was sensational against Milwaukee, the Bucks have no one who can attack a defense off the dribble. Walker, meanwhile, is one of the league’s most explosive guards, and could potentially expose that vulnerability.
Instead, it has been Dragic, 34, who has continued to turn back the clock to his days as an All-Star level player, slashing into the lane and scoring at will — all while wearing an enormous leg brace.
This production is what Miami thought it was getting when it acquired Dragic at the 2015 trade deadline to pair with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to pair with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Now, five years later, the Heat are seeing just how good Dragic can be with another athletic wing in Butler, and another athletic big in Bam Adebayo. It’s looking pretty good so far.
— Tim Bontemps
Third-quarter woes continue to haunt Celtics
At halftime, Boston held a dominant 13-point lead, only to see it wither in the third period. Miami outscored Boston by 20 points — making it the single worst quarter by scoring margin of the Celtics’ season, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Boston has now blown four double-digit leads this postseason, which is tied for the league lead.
Boston was 0-of-4 from beyond the arc and Jaylen Brown went scoreless in just over nine minutes of play. At the end of the third, Boston trailed 84-77. It was the only quarter they lost.
This isn’t new. While the Celtics won the third quarter of Game 1, 28-16, they were outscored in every third quarter in their semifinal series against the Toronto Raptors. Coming into this series, coach Brad Stevens and Boston’s players both noted that closing games was something they needed to improve.
“Finishing out each possession, each game,” Tatum said of what he learned from the Toronto series. “Just how critical that is because you never know how that could change the outcome or the dynamic of the entire series.”
In Game 2, cracking the door open for Miami in the third proved to be lethal for Boston. Fixing it will be the key to making this a series.
— Malika Andrews
No lead is safe inside the bubble
The Heat came back from a 17-point deficit Thursday, and it’s time to stop being surprised. One of the key takeaways from this year’s playoffs is double-digit leads aren’t remotely safe anymore.
There have been 51 times this postseason where a team’s biggest lead was between 10 and 19 points. Those teams have collectively gone 31-20 (.608).
Obviously, you’d still rather be on the right side of a double-digit lead than the other side. But given that a lead of that size is less likely to result in a win than a Giannis Antetokounmpo free throw is to result in a make (63% during the regular season), we can’t treat it as anywhere near a sure thing.
Overall, there have been 21 comebacks from any kind of double-digit lead (one, by the Dallas Mavericks over the LA Clippers in Game 4, was by more than 20 points). Per ESPN Stats & Info, that ties the second-most ahead of the NBA Finals in any postseason since 1997. Only in 2003, when there were 26 such comebacks, have there been more on record in the first round of the playoffs. And there’s still time to add to that total.
During last year’s playoffs, Baxter Holmes and I looked at the increasing frequency of giant comebacks. The explanations were what you’d expect: Increasing numbers of 3-pointers and faster pace make it easier to build big leads, but also to lose them. Those massive comebacks aren’t exactly what we’re seeing in this year’s playoffs, but the same takeaways apply.
Leads just aren’t as safe as they used to be.
Miami knows that as well as anyone. Game 2 was the Heat’s fifth comeback from a double-digit deficit this postseason, including three of their four wins over the Bucks in the second round and both so far against the Celtics. That ties the Denver Nuggets — or, as ESPN’s Mike Breen called them earlier this week, “the comeback kids from Colorado” for the most in the 2020 playoffs and third most before the Finals since 1997, per ESPN Stats & Info.
Here’s the kicker: Miami never trailed by more than five in its one loss so far in the playoffs, in overtime to the Bucks. So when the Heat go down 10, they’ve got you right where they want you.
— Kevin Pelton