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    Boston Celtics Beat Miami Heat in Game 7 for Trip to N.B.A. Finals

    The Celtics led by 15 after the first quarter. Miami’s Jimmy Butler fueled the Heat’s comeback attempt, but it wasn’t enough.Follow our live coverage of the 2022 N.B.A. Finals between Golden State and the Boston Celtics.MIAMI — For the Boston Celtics, winning the Eastern Conference finals is nothing new. Making it to the N.B.A. finals, which the franchise has now done 22 times, is nothing to celebrate much. The Celtics don’t hang those banners, they like to say. There isn’t room among the 17 in the rafters for winning N.B.A. championships.But it was new for the players who made this Eastern Conference championship happen.A pair of stars in their mid-20s, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, had each made it to the conference finals multiple times, but no further until Sunday. The Celtics beat the Miami Heat, 100-96, in Game 7 to win the East and will face Golden State in the N.B.A. finals starting Thursday in San Francisco. A 15-year N.B.A. veteran in Al Horford will make his first finals appearance, with Boston. Marcus Smart, a 28-year-old defensive stalwart, is in his eighth season with the Celtics. They bounced around, bumped chests, hugged each other and screamed.“Obviously, we know we want to win a championship, right,” Tatum said, “but to get over this hump in the fashion that we did it, obviously, we took the toughest route possible. And then to win a Game 7 to go to a championship on the road is special.”More than four months into a remarkable turnaround, the Celtics seem determined to keep it going. Behind Tatum and Brown, Boston defeated the Heat on Sunday for a 4-3 series victory. Tatum was named the most valuable player of the Eastern Conference finals, a new honor this season. The trophy is named for the Celtics icon Larry Bird.The Warriors, who are trying to resuscitate a dynasty that had been on hiatus, are pursuing their fourth championship in eight seasons. Golden State, the third seed in the Western Conference, will have home-court advantage over Boston, a second seed, because it had a better regular-season record, winning 53 games to Boston’s 51.The Celtics won their last title in 2008, back when many of the best players on this year’s roster were elementary school students.Under Ime Udoka, their first-year coach, the Celtics have already engineered a comeback story to remember. It was not until late January that they figured out how to defend, share the ball and win with any semblance of consistency.In the postseason, the Celtics have eliminated a smorgasbord of N.B.A. luminaries and would-be contenders: the Nets, led by Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, in the first round; the reigning champions, the Milwaukee Bucks, in the conference semifinals; and, now, the top-seeded Heat, who, in Game 7, could not match the desperation with which they played Game 6 when they first faced elimination.All this after the Celtics had filled the first couple of months of the regular season with some of the most unappetizing basketball on the East Coast. Forget about contending for a championship: Could they even make the playoffs? They appeared in rigorous pursuit of rock bottom.Miami’s Jimmy Butler had 35 points and 9 rebounds in Game 7. He played all 48 minutes.Eric Espada/Getty ImagesThe Celtics began to plumb the depths early, in November, when a loss to the Chicago Bulls dropped their record to 2-5 and Smart used his platform after the game to rip Tatum and Brown for hogging the ball.“We were tested,” Brown said Sunday night. “We’ve been through a lot. We’ve learned a lot over the years, and now the stage is at its brightest. We’ve got to apply everything that we’ve learned into these moments.”By mid-January, a loss to Philadelphia had the Celtics at 21-22, and Joel Embiid, the 76ers’ star center, described Boston as an “iso-heavy team” that was easy to defend.Even some of Udoka’s oldest friends were questioning whether he could unlock the team’s potential. Kendrick Williams, a youth coach who helped Udoka launch an Amateur Athletic Union team in 2006, when Udoka was still patrolling N.B.A. courts as a power forward, recalled reaching out to him via text message when the Celtics were struggling.“And he was like: ‘Man, you know I’m not panicking. You know we’re going to get it right,’” Williams said. “He was so confident, it put me at ease.”From the start of training camp — and even during his introductory news conference last summer — Udoka emphasized the importance of ball movement. It remained one of the staples of his film sessions as the Celtics labored with growing pains, and it was a message that eventually took root.Tatum was Boston’s leading scorer in Game 7.Eric Espada/Getty Images“You start to realize how hard it is to win,” Tatum said. “You start to question yourself: Are you good enough to be that guy? But I think you just trust in yourself, trust in the work that you put in to get to this point and continue to work, and it can’t rain forever. Good days were coming.”Before the Celtics faced the 76ers again in the middle of February, Udoka reminded his players of Embiid’s remarks. The Celtics went out and beat Philadelphia by 48 points for their ninth straight win.But that was only one part of the Celtics’ winning formula. Led by Smart, who won the N.B.A.’s Defensive Player of the Year Award, the Celtics emerged as a ferocious group of defenders, their lineup bolstered by a pair of midseason acquisitions: Derrick White, a guard from the San Antonio Spurs, and Daniel Theis, a defense-minded center from the Houston Rockets who had started his career in Boston.After winning 28 of their final 35 games to close out the regular season, the Celtics pulverized the Nets with a four-game sweep in the first round of the playoffs. Even before the series ended, Irving was telling reporters that the Celtics’ window was “now.” After the sweep was complete, Durant predicted that Boston had a chance “to do some big things.”Boston and Miami traded wins over the first four games of the conference finals, then the Celtics became the first to string together two victories. Miami shot 33.3 percent in Game 4, then 31.9 percent in Game 5 — both lopsided defeats.Jaylen Brown had 24 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists in Game 7. Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesAt that point at least one Golden State player believed he knew how the Eastern Conference finals would end. After Golden State beat Dallas in the Western Conference finals on Thursday, forward Draymond Green said during an appearance on TNT’s postgame show that he expected to play the Celtics in the N.B.A. finals.Instead, the Heat, and Butler in particular, refused to concede.With their season on the line in Game 6, Butler scored 47 points on the road in Boston, forcing a winner-takes-all Game 7 in Miami.Boston opened Game 7 on a 9-1 run, and Miami spent the rest of the game trying to catch up.After one quarter, the Celtics led by 15 points, and had held Miami to 17 points, 6 of them by Butler. When the Heat pushed back, it was largely because of him. He scored 18 points in the second quarter and helped the Heat cut their deficit to just 6 at halftime.They got even closer at the start of the fourth, when two quick Heat baskets made the score 82-79. But then Boston’s defense forced Miami to go nearly five minutes of playing time without scoring.Butler played in every second of the decisive game and gave the Heat one final chance. With 16.6 seconds remaining in the game, and Boston up by 2, Butler pulled up for a 3-pointer. Having fallen victim to Butler’s heroics in the past, the Celtics held their breath.“I was like, ‘Man, what the hell,’” Brown said.“Not again,” Smart said he thought in that moment.Butler’s shot didn’t fall. He finished the game with 35 points.Had the Heat won, it would have been the second time in the three years since Butler came to Miami that the Heat had made the N.B.A. finals. Butler said after the game that he didn’t know he had played all 48 minutes.“I feel like with every second I did play, I should have done more, could’ve done better to turn this into a win,” he said.Tatum holds up the trophy for being named the most valuable player of the Eastern Conference finals. Eric Espada/Getty ImagesBoston’s Al Horford and teammates celebrate after beating the Heat in Game 7. Horford has not played in the N.B.A. finals in his 15-year career.Jim Rassol/USA Today Sports, via ReutersThe Celtics’ players and coaches ran toward each other as the final buzzer sounded, then swirled around the middle of the court jubilantly.Horford fell to his knees and hit the ground with his hands.“I didn’t know how to act,” he said later, then turned to Brown, 10 years his junior, and giggled.The Celtics fans who remained in the crowd made their way to the lower bowl for the muted conference championship celebration that always comes when a team wins it on the road. Chants of “let’s go Celtics” rang out in the emptying arena, sometimes with players on the court acting like orchestra conductors directing the chorus.Tatum cradled his Larry Bird trophy and lifted it in the air as he walked toward the tunnel off the court, while fans reached to try to touch it.“You can’t help but smile and enjoy the moment out there on the court,” Udoka said. “It’s kind of forced upon you, seeing the joy with the players. And it’s all about those guys.”He had already started thinking about what awaited them in San Francisco. More

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    Miami Heat Force Game 7 Against Boston Celtics Behind Jimmy Butler

    The Boston Celtics were one win away from the N.B.A. finals. After Butler’s 47-point Game 6 performance, the Miami Heat are, too.BOSTON — In a playoff series that had long ago lost any semblance of order or predictability, Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat on Friday night emerged as a rare source of stability, and perhaps the only one.He rose over flat-footed defenders for 3-pointers. He negotiated rush-hour traffic for layups. He drew fouls and whipped passes to teammates and left the Celtics and their fans in a state of despondence.When so much else felt uncertain, Butler was a sure thing. It was the shared feeling among everyone in the building, for better or worse. By the time he cradled the basketball outside the 3-point line late in the fourth quarter, taking a half-beat to survey the landscape before him, he carried himself with a certain air of inevitability: Was there any doubt what would happen next?The Celtics, so celebrated for their defense, made it easy for him. They mishandled the assignment, leaving Butler with a clear path to the hoop, and he pounced, driving for a layup and absorbing contact for good measure. It was a winning play that broke a tie game, along with the Celtics’ resolve.“His competitive will is as high as anybody that has played this game,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said.In steering the Heat to a 111-103 victory over the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, Butler ensured that the series would be pushed to its absolute limit: Game 7 is Sunday night in Miami.Boston Celtics guard Jayson Tatum averaged 23.8 points per game over the first five games of the Eastern Conference finals. He had 30 in Friday’s loss.Maddie Meyer/Getty ImagesButler collected 47 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists while shooting 16 of 29 from the field and 4 of 8 from 3-point range. He did so on an ailing right knee after two of the roughest games of his career. He said he had been uplifted by a pregame phone call from Dwyane Wade, the former Heat guard.“D-Wade never hits me until his voice is really, really needed,” Butler said. “And it was.”Butler also had a one-sided conversation before the game with P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris, two of his teammates. Tucker and Morris had a request for Butler: “Yo, we need 50.”“He looked at us, didn’t say a word,” Tucker recalled. “He just nodded his head, kept going. I was like, oh, yeah, he’s about to play. He’s locked in.”Spoelstra described “Game 7” as the two best words in professional sports, and he would not get an argument from the Golden State Warriors, who are awaiting the winner in the N.B.A. finals, starting Thursday in San Francisco. While Boston and Miami continue to bludgeon each other, Golden State needed just five games to eliminate the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference finals.“Rest, ice, massage — all of that good stuff,” Butler said when he was asked how he would tend to his knee ahead of Game 7. “The same thing every single day.”The Heat were coming off two straight disheartening performances. They had lost Game 4 by 20 while shooting 33.3 percent from the field. They had lost Game 5 by 13 points while shooting 31.9 percent — at home, no less, where their fans shuffled out of the arena wondering whether they would see the team again this season. After all, Butler had shot a combined 7 of 32 in those two duds while laboring with his injured knee.Butler shot poorly in Games 4 and 5, going 7 of 32 from the field. But he made up for that with a clutch performance on Friday.Kathryn Riley/Getty ImagesIn the immediate wake of Game 5, though, with the Heat facing elimination, Spoelstra did something interesting at his news conference: He channeled his inner Mister Rogers.“You’ve got to enjoy this,” he said. “You do. If you want to break through and punch a ticket to the finals, you’re going to have to do some ridiculously tough stuff.”He added: “We’re still alive. We have an opportunity to play in front of a great crowd, and an opportunity to make a memory that you’ll remember for a long time. That’s all we’re thinking about right now.”Spoelstra would know, having coached the Heat to two titles and five finals appearances. In his 14th season, he acutely understands the playoffs and the stakes and the pressures and the possibilities.If Spoelstra delivered the same message about opportunity to his players before Game 6, Butler must have absorbed every word of it before using it as fuel against the Celtics.“His aggression just opens everything up for everybody else,” Tucker said.In the first quarter alone, Butler shot 6 of 10 from the field and made both of his 3-point attempts while collecting 14 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. As a team, the Heat made five 3-pointers in the first quarter, which was especially impressive considering they had gone 7 of 45 from 3-point range in Game 5.“I think we played with a little bit more confidence,” said Kyle Lowry, who had 18 points and 10 assists in the win. “We played with some oomph tonight, and it felt good to do it.”While Butler’s late-game layup gave Miami the lead for good, he sealed the win with less than a minute left when he took a spinning, turnaround jump shot from 20 feet with the shot clock set to expire.His performance as a whole evoked memories of 2012, when LeBron James scored 45 points to lead the visiting Heat to a Game 6 win over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. The Heat proceeded to win Game 7 to advance to the finals, then won it all. Spoelstra declined to make any comparisons.“It’s a different era,” he said. “It’s a different team.”And Butler, still in search of his first championship, seems determined to make his own mark. At his news conference, he shared the dais with Lowry, who offered up a quizzical expression when Butler said he had played a “decent” game. Lowry was asked to elaborate on Butler’s game.“It’s incredible,” said Lowry, who supplemented his assessment with an expletive. “My bad. Don’t fine me, N.B.A. That was a mistake, I promise.”It was among the only mistakes the Heat made all night. More

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    Boston Celtics Romp Over Miami Heat

    Boston and Miami keep trading blowout wins in their playoff series.BOSTON — The Miami Heat did not score their first basket until there was 3 minutes 22 seconds left in the first quarter Monday night, the longest period without a field goal to start an N.B.A. playoff game in almost three decades, according to ESPN.It got only worse from there, the result of yet another bizarre game in this Eastern Conference finals series against the Boston Celtics. From game to game, like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.In Game 3 on Saturday night, the Heat went up by 26 points in the first half. In Game 4, it was the Celtics’ turn to go up 27 before halftime, despite missing their starting point guard, Marcus Smart, because of an ankle injury from the previous game. Most of the starters were out of the game for good by early in the final quarter.Through the first four games, the series has been mostly a sequence of wild, uncharacteristic swings by both teams. On Monday, Boston led by 32 at one point before winning, 102-82. Neither team has been able to carry momentum into the next game, despite looking dominant for long stretches.“It’s wild, right? I’m not really sure how to explain it,” Heat guard Victor Oladipo said.The series is tied, 2-2, but not because it has been especially competitive. Amazingly, the last time there was a lead change was in Game 2, in which the Celtics led by as many as 34. It was the only lead change of the game. Each team has apparently conveniently forgotten the tipoff time every other game. In three of the four games, a team has been leading by double digits at the end of the first quarter.“It’s an inconsistent series from both teams at times, and it’s an odd one, honestly,” Celtics Coach Ime Udoka said.It hasn’t been a question of being home or away, since each team has won a game on the road. The Celtics and the Heat have either been at their best or their worst. There have been very few in-betweens.“Sometimes when you have two really competitive teams, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a 1-point game,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It means that it can be flammable either way. Both teams are ignitable.”He continued: “Both teams can really defend and get teams out of their comfort zone and distort a lot of things offensively, and that can fuel big runs on the other end.”On Monday, the advantage belonged to Boston from the start. The Celtics were quicker to loose balls, more active in disrupting passing lanes and more coordinated in switches, limiting quality looks for Miami. They were more urgent in getting back on defense and rotating in the paint, not allowing the Heat to push for fast breaks as they did on Saturday. Boston’s defense was so effective that Miami shot only two 3-pointers in the opening quarter, limiting its chance at making up the deficit until it was too late. It was the exact kind of energy that Boston sorely missed in the first half of Game 3. Miami’s starters combined for 18 points.What made the game even stranger is that the Celtics didn’t play well offensively. They were only 5 for 27 on 3-point attempts when they entered the fourth quarter up 24 points and the game was effectively over. They ended the game shooting 39.7 percent from the field, a percentage that would result in a loss on most nights, not a blowout win. They also won in spite of a poor game from guard Jaylen Brown, who shot 5 for 20 from the field for 12 points.Miami, a team that likes to pride itself on its hustle culture, gave up 10 offensive rebounds in the first half. Heat center Bam Adebayo, who finally broke out for 31 points in Game 3, reverted back to being tentative, shooting the ball only twice in the first half. He finished with 9 points. In large part, this was because of the presence of Celtics center Robert Williams III, who missed Game 3 because of knee soreness. Williams, who was named to the All-Defensive second team last week, made life difficult at the rim for Miami. He had 12 points and 9 rebounds in only 19 minutes.“We shouldn’t have to get punched in the mouth to respond,” Williams said of the team’s poor starts in its losses.Perhaps this game was inevitable. The Celtics have not lost two games in a row the entire postseason. In their semifinal matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston responded to letdowns with three strong performances. No one has been more indicative of the Celtics’ fortunes this postseason than their top player, Jayson Tatum — a Jekyll and Hyde superstar.There are nights when Tatum looks like one of the best players in the league. Those nights are often coming off Boston defeats. Including Monday night’s 31-point performance, Tatum has averaged 32.6 points after the Celtics’ losses during the postseason. He was aggressive in attacking the basket, getting to the line 16 times, more than any other game in this playoff run.But when Tatum plays poorly, he looks more out of sorts than most superstars. His shoulders slump. He settles for difficult step-back jumpers, complains to referees and doesn’t get back as aggressively on defense. In Game 3 against the Bucks, Tatum had only 10 points and shot 4 of 19 from the field. On Saturday night, Tatum had a similar performance — scoring 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting.“I think I do a really good job of sleeping it off, regardless if I have 10 points or 46 points,” Tatum said, adding, “I’m a big believer in you can’t change what happened.”Jimmy Butler, the Heat’s top playmaker, looked slow and lacked explosiveness.Paul Rutherford/USA Today Sports, via ReutersBut the Heat may have a star problem of their own going forward in the series. For the second straight game, Jimmy Butler, their top playmaker, looked slow and lacked explosiveness. He missed the second half of Game 3 because of knee inflammation. On Monday, he didn’t look any better, missing almost all of his shots at the rim. He didn’t go to the free-throw line once in 27 minutes, a sign that something is off. He averaged eight free throws a game in the regular season, among the best in the league. In Game 1 alone, he had 18.Asked about his knee, Butler said: “I’m straight. No excuse for how I played tonight. It don’t got nothing to do with my knee. I’ve just got to be better. I will be better. I’m not too worried about it.”Miami was already prone to offensive droughts. But without Butler at peak effectiveness, the Heat will have a difficult time scoring against one of the best defenses in the N.B.A. His absence was felt Saturday, when the Heat nearly blew their 26-point lead in that second half. His ability to penetrate and pass creates shots for others.But maybe the Heat will be fine either way. There hasn’t been much rhyme or reason for why the teams have alternated unleashing torrents on each other on a given night. And Game 5 at home, if this series is any indication, is Miami’s turn.“We’ve proven that we can do it,” Spoelstra said. “The margin for error for either team — whatever they have done to us, we can do to them. None of us are happy about what happened tonight.” More

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    Boston Celtics Provide the Drama. Miami Heat Deliver the Win.

    A strange playoff series keeps getting weirder with injury scares and furious comebacks. It’s difficult to tell who is best prepared to adapt.BOSTON — On the first possession of the game, Miami Heat point guard Kyle Lowry made a statement.He snatched a rebound off a Boston Celtics miss and sped the ball up the court before finding Max Strus for an open 3-pointer.Thus began an avalanche against a typically stolid Celtics defense. Miami’s dominant first quarter on Saturday provided enough cushion to withstand Boston’s furious comeback and emotional in-game returns from Celtics players who had appeared to be seriously injured. But it was the return of two Heat stars that made possible Miami’s 109-103 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.The first star was Lowry, who has been absent for most of the playoffs because of a hamstring injury. The other was Bam Adebayo, who has only seemingly been absent from the series. Adebayo’s 16 points in the first half matched his combined total in Games 1 and 2. He finished Game 3 with 31 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists. Miami leads the series, 2-1.“In the previous game, as everyone knows, they beat us like we stole something,” Adebayo said of Miami’s 25-point loss in Game 2. “That should wake anybody up.”This has been an undoubtedly strange series. In 12 quarters, the Heat have outscored the Celtics only twice, yet they lead the series overall, two games to one. Those two quarters have been series-defining. The first was in the third quarter of Game 1, when the Heat outscored the Celtics, 39-14. The other was in Saturday night’s opening frame, when the Heat jumped out to a 39-18 lead. The matchup has mostly featured wild swings and stretches of uncharacteristically poor defense from two teams who typically count that as a strength.Miami’s Bam Adebayo came alive for the first time this series with 16 first-half points in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press“The margin for error on either side is so small that you’ve just got to stay the course through all the emotions and the ups and downs,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said.The Heat had a new strategy for Game 3: Move faster.Miami continuously pounded the Celtics defense in the first half by pushing the ball. That put the Celtics on their heels without time to adjust. In the case of Adebayo, sometimes that meant receiving a pass in the half-court, then immediately sprinting up the court and going to the basket against the slower Al Horford.“I’ve seen Bam play like that a lot, but tonight was special,” Strus said. “Just because of all the noise and all the criticism that he’s been getting, for him to step up like that was huge.”In the case of Lowry, pushing the ball meant receiving an inbounds pass after a Celtics basket and throwing it up the court to a streaking Jimmy Butler for a wide-open layup.But it wasn’t just fast breaks: When Adebayo received the ball in the post, he would immediately pivot into the paint, rather than hold the ball and wait for the defense to respond. That was not how the Heat were accustomed to playing: During the regular season, they were near the bottom of the league in pace.The Heat led by as many as 26 points in the first half. They entered halftime up by 15.The Heat forced 23 turnovers, which helped them push for fast breaks. The Celtics’ ballhandlers couldn’t find space to dribble because the Heat defense was so adept at stripping the ball. Boston’s Jaylen Brown, one of the better slashing guards in the N.B.A., repeatedly lost the ball to Victor Oladipo, who had four steals off the bench. Lowry and Adebayo also had four steals each.“We made it too easy on them in that regard,” Celtics Coach Ime Udoka said. “Obviously, getting stops or scoring the basketball, they can’t get out and run to that extent, but scoring 33 points on our 24 turnovers is hard to overcome.”Brown, who had seven turnovers, put at least some of the blame on officiating, despite Boston having 30 free throws to Miami’s 14.“They let a lot of stuff go tonight, especially when I feel like I drive and I get to the basket. I feel like it’s two hands on me all the time,” Brown said. “I never get those hand-checking calls.”The Heat even spoiled what would have been a dramatic story arc for the Celtics. In the third quarter, Marcus Smart, the Celtics guard who won the Defensive Player of the Year Award, left the game after appearing to sustain a gruesome right leg injury on a rebound attempt. He crashed to the floor, writhing in pain, and was helped off the floor and into the locker room.Within minutes, he re-emerged from the tunnel to deafening roars from the Celtics crowd and checked into the game. He immediately hit a corner 3-pointer to cut the Heat deficit to 10. Then came another dramatic moment in the fourth quarter, when Boston’s best player, Jayson Tatum, also collapsed to the ground, holding his right shoulder. Like Smart, he had to be helped off the floor. But he, too, re-emerged moments later.Boston’s Marcus Smart seemed to seriously injure his leg in the second half, but he was soon back in the game.Bob Dechiara/USA Today Sports, via ReutersBoston’s Jayson Tatum left for the locker room with an apparent shoulder injury, but, like Smart, he soon returned.Michael Dwyer/Associated PressThe Celtics seemed primed for a storybook comeback. They ferociously attacked the basket, while an arena full of fans in green T-shirts shouted themselves hoarse. Brown’s 3-pointer with 2 minutes 40 seconds left cut the Heat lead to 1 in a game Boston had never led. All the makings were there for a Hollywood movie, almost assuredly starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.A rescue plan for Miami came in the form of Strus, the undrafted third-year guard, who has taken minutes from the higher-profile guards Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. He answered Brown’s jumper with a 3-pointer of his own, deflating the Celtics crowd. Lowry, putting a period on his game-opening statement, provided the assist for the stat sheet and a separate one in the huddle.“In the timeout, Kyle said, let’s run a pin-down for Max,” Strus said. “Let’s get him open. So when he said that, I had all the confidence in the world to step up and make a shot.”Health will be a defining factor going forward in the series. Butler missed the second half of Game 3 because of knee inflammation. The Celtics were missing Robert Williams III, their starting center, because of knee swelling. He is considered day-to-day. Udoka said after the game that Smart had rolled his ankle and Tatum had a shoulder stinger.“I’m assuming they’ll be OK,” Udoka said.Lowry was a pest on defense, with heady play on offense and a calming influence, resembling the player he’d been when he won a championship in 2019 with the Toronto Raptors. He finished with 11 points, 6 assists and 4 steals. It wasn’t always pretty, but it worked. He said he felt “fine” after the game, despite struggling to find a rhythm.“No matter what happens, at the end of the day, if you put your heart out there and play hard, you’ve got to be happy and just live with the results, and that’s what we do,” Lowry said. More

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    Marcus Smart Leads Boston Celtics Over Miami Heat in Game 2

    Smart, the Celtics’ point guard, made an impact on offense and defense as Boston beat Miami in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart had an open lane for an easy fast-break basket. Then he unnecessarily moved the ball behind his back and flubbed a layup.A minute later, he had the ball again and hit an acrobatic circus shot on the baseline from behind the backboard. He drew a foul, too.OH MY MARCUS 😱 pic.twitter.com/atJAYR2AxX— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 20, 2022
    That was the Marcus Smart Experience in a nutshell on Thursday night: sometimes ugly, sometimes entertaining, always impactful. In Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, Smart had 24 points, 9 rebounds and 12 assists in a game the Celtics thoroughly dominated, 127-102, to tie the best-of-seven series. He had only a single turnover in one of the best playoff performances of his career.This season has seen the continuation of a remarkable shift for the 28-year-old Smart: There’s a lot less ugly. He’s emerged as a steady, reliable point guard who can more than competently run Boston’s offense, even as his efforts on the other end of the floor — he was named the N.B.A.’s defensive player of the year — draw the most attention.Smart missed the first game of the series on Tuesday because of a foot sprain, and his absence was evident. The Celtics collapsed in the third quarter, when Smart’s talents for calming the offense down and anchoring the defense could have changed the game.Right from the opening tip on Thursday, Smart affected the game. The Celtics first scored off a difficult cross-court pass from Smart to shooting guard Jaylen Brown. Smart immediately followed that with a harder-than-it-looked alley-oop to center Robert Williams III.In the first half, though, Smart shot a dismal 2 for 11 from the field. For most players, that would mean they were having a bad game. But Smart was one of the best players on the court, because of his seven assists and zero turnovers. The Celtics led by 25 at halftime, and they had outscored the Heat by 26 points with Smart on the floor.“I’m not the type of coach that wants to call a play every time down,” Celtics Coach Ime Udoka said. “I leave it in his hands, and he usually makes the right decision.”Smart did not enjoy the same kind of trust earlier in his career. In the previous seven years of his N.B.A. journey, all with Boston, Smart was known mostly as a stalwart defensive player with a penchant for throwing up bad shots early in the shot clock and for making ill-advised passes. He was also, for the most part, a poor shooter from 3-point range. Smart had other attributes that made him a fan favorite, however, such as his willingness to constantly dive to the floor for loose balls.This year, despite his perceived offensive limitations, Smart was handed the keys to the Celtics offense for the first time. It was a risky decision. Smart had never been a starting point guard for a whole season. He had never even been a full-time starter until the 2020-21 season. He had played behind star point guards like Kemba Walker and Isaiah Thomas, two former All-Stars who had made their living as scorers. But Walker’s injuries last year gave Smart a chance a get a taste of being the main point guard.Smart didn’t shoot well during the first half of Thursday’s game — he was just 2 of 11 — but he made up for it in the second half with 17 points.Eric Espada/Getty ImagesSmart initially struggled adjusting to his new role, as did the rest of the Celtics. In his first 50 games this season, Smart averaged 11.7 points and 5.3 assists. Boston’s offense often looked stuck in the mud. After a November loss to the Chicago Bulls, Smart incurred the ire of his teammates when he publicly criticized the two best players on the team, Brown and Jayson Tatum, for not passing the ball more. Smart’s underwhelming point guard play contributed to Boston’s lackadaisical 25-25 start.But then came the turnaround. In Smart’s final 21 games of the regular season, he averaged 13.2 points and 7.1 assists on 43.2 percent shooting. He also morphed into a more reliable shooter. While there were certainly other factors, Smart’s improvement coincided with the Celtics’ surge from fringe playoff team to N.B.A. finals contender. Tatum said Thursday that Smart had given the Celtics “another guy who can handle the ball under pressure and get us organized and get us in position where we need to be.”His strong playmaking has carried over into the playoffs. In the first round against the Nets, Smart averaged 16.5 points and 7 assists in Boston’s four-game sweep. Against the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round, Smart averaged 14 points and 5.7 assists, while shooting 39.4 percent from behind the 3-point line.“Being the point guard that I am, I take a lot of pressure off our guys so they don’t have to try to force it as much so they can be who they are,” Smart said after Thursday’s game.This is all while Smart has often been tasked with guarding the opposition’s best players. In the first round, those were Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. He followed that up by switching between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday in the second round. Against Miami, Smart was asked to try to slow down Jimmy Butler on Thursday night.Smart increasingly has found himself rescuing the Celtics with his offense as well as his defense. When the Heat were making a third-quarter run in Game 2, it was Smart who took it upon himself to stop it. In addition to his circus shot over the backboard, Smart hit multiple 3s to stop the bleeding. He scored 11 points in the quarter, including the highlight of the game. The Heat had cut the lead to 17 and the Miami crowd was suddenly re-engaged. Smart dribbled the ball up, bounced a crossover dribble between his legs, causing Heat forward Max Strus to tumble backward to the floor. As he scrambled to his feet, Smart calmly stepped forward and made a free-throw line jumper.That was the new Marcus Smart Experience. Undisturbed under pressure. Reliable. And still entertaining.“That’s what I got drafted here to do, and I just waited my turn,” Smart said. “And I’m blessed to be in this situation and to have the opportunity to go out and show what I can do. And I think everybody in the organization — in the world — has seen what I can do at that point guard position.” More

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    The Stats Are Hiding a Secret About the Miami Heat’s P.J. Tucker

    Tucker did a little bit of everything in a Game 1 win over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals — including help neutralize Jayson Tatum.MIAMI — A lot of N.B.A. players go through the motions when it comes to boxing out for rebounds on free throws, and no one can really blame them. Most free throws, nearly 80 percent of them, are successful. So why bother boxing out at all?And then there is Miami’s P.J. Tucker, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound wrecking ball who has spent his career disguised as a power forward. Consider Game 1 of the N.B.A.’s Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday night, as Gabe Vincent, a teammate with the Heat, lined up for the second of two free throws. Tucker took advantage of that window to throw most of his body weight into the midsection of the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum.It was a bit much. One of the referees advised Tucker to cool it, which did not please him. But it was not going to prevent Tucker from playing the only way he knows how to play — hard — and his toughness was among the reasons the Heat were able to run away with a 118-107 victory in the series opener.“He inspires everybody,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said, adding: “He’s like a great linebacker. He just gets everybody organized and he communicates so well.”Tucker’s defense helped stymie the Celtics in the second half. Boston was just 2 of 15 in the third quarter and was outscored by 64-45 after halftime.Lynne Sladky/Associated PressIn a game that Jimmy Butler, as usual, dominated for Miami, finishing with 41 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists, Tucker posted a bunch of numbers that were nondescript. He had 5 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists. He shot 2 of 5 from the field and missed both of his free throws. He trudged around the court like a dump truck with a flat tire after rolling his right ankle in the first half.But his impact was enormous. After Tatum scored 21 points to lead the Celtics’ to an 8-point lead at halftime, Tucker — bad wheel and all — somehow managed to affix himself to Tatum for long stretches of the second half, helping to limit him to 1 of 7 shooting and 8 points the rest of the way.“What he does doesn’t really get noticed by everybody out there,” Spoelstra said of Tucker. “I don’t have my glasses on, so I don’t even know what his stat line was. But you’re talking about one of the toughest covers. And then when he’s on the weak side, he does all the right things.”The Heat outscored the Celtics by 12 points in the 31 minutes that Tucker played. They won by 11.“I didn’t know I would fall in love with a basketball player as much as I have with P.J.,” Butler said. “He’s got the tough job every night of guarding the opposing team’s best player, and then goes down there and shoots the ball five times. You’ve got to respect that.”The Celtics were short-handed — and short on rest. Their conference semifinal series with the Milwaukee Bucks went to seven games before they were able to advance on Sunday.As if that had not been challenging enough, they were down two starters for their opener against the Heat: Marcus Smart, the league’s defensive player of the year, was sidelined with a sprained right foot, and Al Horford entered the league’s coronavirus health and safety protocols on Tuesday afternoon.Boston’s Jayson Tatum had 21 points in the first half but just 8 for the rest of the game.Michael Reaves/Getty ImagesThe Heat had been off since Thursday. They scuffled through a rusty start against the Celtics, missing their first seven field-goal attempts. Tucker was miffed.“Took us a long time to get aggressive,” he said. “We were way too soft, and they got to pretty much everything they wanted.”At 37, Tucker is the proud protagonist of one of the more well-chronicled basketball odysseys. He joined the Toronto Raptors for the 2006-07 season as a second-round draft pick out of the University of Texas. But after he played sparingly for the Raptors, he spent the subsequent five seasons playing in Israel, Ukraine, Greece, Italy and Germany, refining his game along the way.By the time he signed with the Phoenix Suns before the 2012-13 season, he had proved he could do a bit of everything: defend, rebound, facilitate and even score when the opportunity presented itself. An invaluable defender, he won an N.B.A. championship last season after the Bucks picked him up near the trade deadline.At this late stage, Tucker is closer to the end of his playing days than he is to the beginning, and the wear and tear of his profession was clear during Tuesday’s game. After he rolled his ankle in the second quarter, he hobbled to the locker room. His return appeared in doubt.But Tucker swapped out his footwear — one of the league’s more prolific sneakerheads, he has hundreds of pairs to choose from — and summoned some divine intervention.“There’s a genie back there,” Tucker said. “Took one of my wishes.”Spoelstra recalled checking on Tucker’s availability for the second half.“He looked at me dead in the eye and said: ‘Don’t even think about it. I’m playing in the second half,’ ” Spoelstra said. “I’m like, ‘All right, I wasn’t even questioning it.’ ”As he played through pain, Tucker seemed to take out his angst on Tatum, one of the postseason’s emerging young stars. Tucker was like the old guy at the neighborhood park: hobbled but wise, an unshakably annoying presence. The Celtics shot 2 of 15 from the field in the third quarter as the Heat outscored them, 39-14. But again: Tucker saw room for improvement.“What took us so long?” he asked.He sank his lone 3-pointer in the fourth quarter and seized the moment by raising his arms to the crowd. It was a rare chance for him to bathe in the spotlight, but his teammates understand his worth.At the final buzzer, Butler embraced him.“He does all the little things,” Butler said. More

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    NBA Preview: Miami Heat and Boston Celtics Fight to Win the East

    Miami and Boston will meet in the Eastern Conference finals, with each team rightfully confident in its ability to win. The series may be too close to call.A group of mostly 20-something out-of-towners heading to Miami this time of year typically would be called spring breakers.But for our purposes, we’re referring to the Boston Celtics. Their reward for outlasting the Milwaukee Bucks in a grueling seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal series is a date in the conference finals with the No. 1-seeded Miami Heat, starting Tuesday.The series is a rematch of the 2020 conference finals, except then the Celtics had the higher seed and the games were at Walt Disney World — another spring vacation destination in Florida.Many of the key characters are the same. The No. 2-seeded Celtics are once again led by their top guards, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, while the Heat will counter with their top stars, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.But even though the rosters haven’t changed much, there are significant differences from two years ago. The Celtics are now coached by Ime Udoka, who morphed Boston’s defense into the league’s best in his first season. Boston’s Grant Williams and Miami’s Tyler Herro were rookies in 2020 and have since developed into indispensable role players.Here is what to look out for in the Eastern Conference finals.Wait. Before we get to that, wasn’t there something important that happened in the 2020 series?Yes. At the end of Game 1, Adebayo blocked a Tatum dunk attempt that would have tied the score in overtime. It was one of the most important blocks in N.B.A. history and it changed the trajectory of a series that Boston was favored to win. The series was close: Three of the Heat’s four wins were by less than double digits.How did each team do this year?The Heat went 53-29, their best regular-season record since 2013-14, when LeBron James was on the team and they lost to San Antonio in the N.B.A. finals. This season provided their seventh highest win total in franchise history.Boston finished hot on their heels. On Jan. 28, the Celtics were 25-25. Since then, including the playoffs, they’ve lost only nine times. They ended the regular season with 51 wins for a remarkable turnaround.Both teams were strong defensively, but not as proficient offensively.The playoffs are a different animal, though.The Celtics opted not to try to avoid the Nets in the first round, even though that meant Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — two A-list stars — would await them. It turned out they didn’t have to worry. The Celtics swept the Nets, solidifying their status as a team to be feared.Also in the first round, Miami faced the Atlanta Hawks, who employ one of the N.B.A.’s best guards in Trae Young. The Hawks were hampered with injuries, and the Heat easily dispatched them in five games, in part because of a suffocating defense on Young.In the second round, the Celtics exchanged haymakers with the Bucks, who were missing a perennial All-Star in the injured Khris Middleton. The Celtics withstood 44 points and 20 rebounds from Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 6, one of the greatest playoff performances ever. Tatum countered with 46 points to carry the Celtics to Game 7, where Milwaukee ran out of gas.Miami caught a break in its semifinal series against the Philadelphia 76ers. Joel Embiid, the second-place finisher in the voting for the Most Valuable Player Award, missed part of the series because of a concussion and an orbital bone fracture. The Heat took the first two games at home. Embiid unexpectedly returned for Games 3 and 4 in Philadelphia, spurring two wins for the Sixers. But Miami adjusted and took the final two contests, and the series.Who is favored in this series?It’s a toss up. Miami has home-court advantage, but the Celtics were a different team in the second half of the season.Both teams are strikingly similar in that they employ efficient, active, switching defenses, while occasionally struggling with offensive droughts. Both teams will have a welcome break from having to deal with a physically bruising center like Antetokounmpo or Embiid.The Celtics have Tatum, who at 24 has blossomed into one of the most complete players in the N.B.A. He has also shown a penchant for delivering in big moments — like the 46-point performance against the Bucks, or his 50-point showing in a first-round playoff win against the Nets last year. During the regular season, Tatum averaged 26.9 points, 8 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game — all career highs. He has also improved at creating opportunities for teammates.The Heat have Butler, a versatile six-time All-Star. He averaged 21.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game during the regular season. In the postseason, Butler has been dominant, averaging 28.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists in 10 games.In addition, the Heat have the 22-year-old Herro, who averaged 20.7 points a game off the bench and was named the sixth man of the year. He can, every now and then, take over a game by himself. One of his best performances came against Boston in the 2020 playoffs, when he scored a career-high 37 points.Any X factors?Health, for one thing. The Celtics said Monday that Marcus Smart, their starting point guard and the league’s defensive player of the year, is questionable for Game 1 because of a foot sprain. The Heat’s starting point guard, Kyle Lowry, a six-time All-Star, is unlikely to play in Game 1 because of a hamstring injury. He’s missed most of the playoffs so far.The Celtics’ starting center, Robert Williams III, will be available for Boston, a huge boost after he had missed most of the postseason because of a knee injury. His athleticism and shot-blocking skills will be a necessary counter to Adebayo.The Celtics were buoyed by spurts of offense from Grant Williams, Al Horford and Payton Pritchard against the Bucks, while for the Heat, the third-year forward Max Strus has been a strong scorer off the bench.Miami is slower and more methodical on offense than Boston and less reliant on 3-pointers. Heat guard Victor Oladipo, after missing most of the regular season recovering from an injury, has emerged as a playmaker in the postseason. He has reached double figures in scoring four of his eight playoff games.Why will Boston win?The best defensive team in the N.B.A. will limit Butler’s effectiveness. Because Butler is a weak 3-point shooter, Boston will crowd the paint and muck up Miami’s spacing. With the Williamses and Horford, Adebayo won’t be able to roam on defense as easily.Also, Tatum is the best offensive player on either team.Why will Miami win?Miami is the more physical team, and Butler won’t be fazed by the Celtics’ defense. While his defenders sag off him from the perimeter, he is skilled enough to force his way into the paint and create space for shooters like Strus and Herro.The Celtics will rely too much on deep 3s because of Adebayo’s strong rim protection and they’ll have cold shooting nights. Miami has the more reliable bench with Herro and Oladipo, a two-time All-Star. And if they need shooting in a pinch, they’ll dust off Duncan Robinson, who has been in and out of Miami’s rotation in the playoffs after starting 68 games in the regular season.And if Miami doesn’t start off by winning games, Udonis Haslem, who has been on the Heat roster since the Big Bang, will yell at them until they do. More

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    Jimmy Butler and the Heat Close Out the 76ers in Game 6

    Philadelphia traded Jimmy Butler to Miami after falling short of the conference finals in 2019. Now he’s going, and they’re going home.As soon as their playoff game ended Thursday night, Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat found Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers to embrace him and say goodbye. The two stars were teammates in Philadelphia during the 2018-19 season, and there was a time when Butler thought he might remain in the city longer. The 76ers had other plans, though, and that slight has stayed with Butler.Moments after he embraced Embiid, Butler was asked what he had said.“That I love him; I’m proud of him,” Butler said in a television interview. “Yes, yes, yes, I still wish I was on this team. I definitely love the Miami Heat though, man. I’m glad that I’m here.”The Miami Heat are glad, too.In the three seasons since he moved south from Philadelphia, Butler has led the Heat to the Eastern Conference Finals twice. The 76ers, who were on the cusp of a conference finals berth with Butler and Embiid, are still trying to figure out how to get past the second round.“He wasn’t going to let this go to seven,” Coach Erik Spoelstra said of Butler, who scored 32 points as the Heat eliminated the 76ers.Matt Slocum/Associated PressOn Thursday, Butler scored 32 points to help his Heat eliminate the 76ers with a 99-90 victory in Game 6.“He gets incredibly desperate in close games or when he sees the light at the end of the tunnel to close out a team,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s not going to leave it to chance. He saw the opportunity — ‘Hey we have an opportunity to end this tonight’ — and he wasn’t going to let this go to seven.”It was a game that felt more lopsided than its final score indicated. With 1 minute 8 seconds left, and Miami leading by 14 points, the 76ers pulled their starters, leaving Embiid and James Harden to watch their season end from the bench.The game closed a disappointing spring for the 76ers, who had hoped to compete for a championship this year after they traded for Harden in February.Harden looked disinterested at times as he committed four turnovers while also contributing 11 points, 9 assists and 4 rebounds. After Philadelphia had tied the series at 2-2, Harden said his team was only then starting to jell in a way that could propel them to a championship. Two games later, they were out.Embiid, who had missed the first two games of the series with a concussion and facial injuries, played with that fracture still healing and a thumb injury starting in Game 3. He scored 20 points and had 12 rebounds on Thursday, but his injuries cleared the way for Butler to be the best player in the series.“Jimmy’s always been this for us in the playoffs,” Spoelstra told reporters before the game as he was prodded about Butler’s role. “Whatever’s needed. And it might be different game to game.”Butler is known for a lot of things, not all of them flattering. On his best days he provides stifling defense and potent offense, but he also has a reputation for irritating his teammates and coaches, and forcing his way out of teams. He can work himself to the point of exhaustion in the service of winning a game, or launch into a screaming fight in a sideline huddle.That happened in March, when he and Spoelstra had to be separated by other players and coaches multiple times. Spoelstra laughed it off after that game, attributing the moment to tempers flaring during a loss.In the playoffs, Butler has shown his best side.“Jimmy is a great competitor,” Spoelstra said Thursday. “I think he’s one of the ultimate competitors in this profession. I think a lot of things get lost in translation.”Joel Embiid had 20 points and 12 rebounds in Game 6 but was limited by injuries in the series.Tim Nwachukwu/Getty ImagesGame 6 took place on the third anniversary of a painful day in Philadelphia sports history. On May 12, 2019, the 76ers were tied with the Toronto Raptors in Game 7 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series when Kawhi Leonard, then with the Raptors, launched a final shot from in front of the Raptors bench as time expired. The ball hit the rim in three different places before finally falling through the net, ending the 76ers’ season.Butler was on the court that day, watching helplessly from the lane as Leonard’s shot danced around the rim and then dropped, but he never got a chance to answer it the following season. The 76ers were not willing to commit to Butler over the long term, and he left that summer and joined the Heat in a sign-and-trade deal.He carried Miami to the N.B.A. finals in the bubble in his first playoff run a year later, and now, after a first-round exit last year, he is headed back to the conference finals after helping the Heat post the best record in the Eastern Conference this season.He’s also keeping score. After finishing off his old team, Butler was caught on the camera by a Miami television station exclaiming, “Tobias Harris over me?”Like Butler, Harris, who still plays for the 76ers, was acquired by Philadelphia during the 2018-19 season. But the 76ers signed him to a five-year deal worth $180 million the same summer the team sent Butler to Miami.Later, Butler spoke like a man at peace.“Now I’m where I belong,” he told reporters. “I guess, where I should have been a long time ago. A place where I’m welcome.” More