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Knee soreness temporarily derailed Jimmy Butler’s glorious playoff run on Saturday night.
But it didn’t derail a determined and dogged Heat team, which rode a big night from Bam Adebayo and timely contributions from several others to thwart multiple furious Boston comebacks and beat the Celtics, 109-103, on Saturday night to take a 2-1 lead in these Eastern Conference Finals.
With Butler sidelined for the entire second half, the Heat never allowed a 15-point halftime lead to disappear entirely. Butler’s injury is not considered to be serious; he might be able to play in Game 4 on Monday night in Boston.
“He didn’t have his normal explosive burst,” Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s been able to manage this. The next two days will be really important. His competitiveness will overtake everything. At halftime, the trainers made the call” for him not to play.
Boston pulled to within one with 2:30 left but never went ahead, and the Heat responded to a 20-4 Celtics fourth-quarter run with a 7-0 late spurt to survive.
There were key late moments from Adebayo (31 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals), Max Strus (16 points), P.J. Tucker (17 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals) and Kyle Lowry, who chipped in 11 points, 6 assists and 4 steals in 29 minutes in his first game after missing four in a row with a hamstring injury.
And Victor Oladipo was a defensive asset as Butler’s second-half replacement.
The Celtics never led in the second half, but the Heat ultimately needed every bit of the 25-point cushion that it built in the first half.
After the Celtics pulled to within 93-92, Strus hit a three with 2:16 left to push the margin back to four.
“We needed a basket,” Strus said. “At the timeout, Kyle said let’s run a pin down for Max.”
After a Celtics miss, Adebayo hit a difficult 17 footer and Tucker sank two free throws. Soon after, a Lowry steal led to a Strus layup, making it a nine-point game with 42 seconds left.
The Heat withstood Butler’s exit for a while, maintaining its 15 point halftime lead through three quarters, and then pushing the margin to 89-72.
From there, Boston outscored the Heat 20-4 before Miami went on that 7-0 run to regain control.
Miami survived a brilliant offensive night from Jaylen Brown, who scored 40 on 14 for 20 shooting.
Erik Spoelstra closed the game with Oladipo instead of Tyler Herro, who shot 4 for 15.
Herro sustained a quadriceps injury (he had a wrap on it). Spoelstra said he stuck with Oladipo partly because of Oladipo’s play and partly because of Herro’s injury.
Butler finished an 8-point first half on the court, but left for good at intermission with knee inflamation. The Celtics already had momentum, having sliced a 25-point deficit to 15 at the break.
With Butler sidelined, Oladipo started the second half after not playing at all in the first half.
Miami, defending with verve, seized on a 3 for 14 shooting night from Jayson Tatum.
Butler - before his exit - and Tucker and others did good work on Tatum, but he also missed a bunch of shots he often makes.
The Celtics played without center Robert Williams because of knee swelling, and Tatum and Marcus Smart left briefly with injuries before returning.
Boston shot just 12 for 32 on threes, with Tatum finishing 1 for 7 and Smart 1 for 4 on a 16-point night before fouling out with 39 seconds left.
The Celtics were undone by 23 turnovers.
Without Butler in the second half, Lowry, Adebayo, Tucker and Herro all helped blunt Celtics rallies.
“Last game, they beat us like we stole something,” Adebayo said. “That should wake anybody up.”
An Adebayo driving dunk - off a Strus pass - ended a 9-0 fourth quarter run and extended the Heat’s lead back to 11, with Tucker then following with a short jumper.
Lowry twice stymied third-quarter pushes by the Celtics, once with a three and another with a long jumper. “It felt good to be back,” Lowry said. “I feel fine.”
Tyler Herro, after a 2 for 11 start, hit a key three in the third, then penetrated and fed Tucker for a three, and then hit another three late in the third quarter.
Oladipo converted a three-point play 10 minutes into the third quarter, on his second shot of the night. He scored only four points (1 for 4 shooting) but had four steals.
Strus hit the huge late three, finishing 6 for 12 from the field.
Miami escaped despite shooting 4 for 17 on threes in the second half and going 4 on 24 on threes after a 7 for 9 start.
It was no coincidence that this massive turnaround from Thursday’s Game 1 debacle coincided with the reunion of a Heat starting group that had been missing Lowry eight games this postseason.
The starting quintet of Butler, Tucker, Adebayo, Lowry and Strus entered Saturday a plus 49, meaning the Heat had outscored opponents by 49 points in their 111 regular-season and playoff minutes together.
With Lowry looking healthy after missing four games in a row, that Heat starting group outscored the Celtics 20-6 to start the game before Lowry went to the bench for a test, then went on a 6-0 run when Lowry returned for a short stint in the second quarter.
But they never played another minute together because of Butler’s injury.
Adebayo came out attacking, and by midway through the first quarter, he already had surpassed his shot total (four) from Game 1.
By two minutes into the second quarter he had equaled his shot total (10) from the first two games combined, making six of them.
Adebayo - taking the ball right at Al Horford and seizing on mismatches, showed the full arsenal - jumpers, baby hooks, and penetrations off the dribble in a 16 points, 8 for 12 first half.
And he continued attacking in the second half, finishing 15 of 22 from the field.
“He was way more assertive on the catch and those moments in between,” Spoelstra said. “It wasn’t just his scoring. He did so many things, getting us organized, facilitating, playing point guard and then defending 1 through 5 against a team that presents a lot of challenges.”
Who was in Adebayo’s ear to be more aggressive? Adebayo cited Udonis Haslem.
Tucker, meanwhile, hit three three-pointers and leads the NBA in playoff three-point shooting at 20 for 41.
The first 18 minutes were magical for Miami; the Heat led 24-7 early and 39-18 after one. At one point, Miami was 7 for 9 on threes.
“We had a bad taste in our mouth,” Strus said of the loss in Game 2.
What’s remarkable is that the Heat built a 51-26 cushion with only three points from Butler and with Herro opening 2 for 8.
The lead swelled to 60-35 before Lowry went to the bench with just over four minutes left in the first quarter - part of a Heat effort not to overextend him in his first game back.
The Celtics promptly outscored the Heat 12-2 to close the quarter, with a Tatum three pulling the Celtics to within 62-47 at the half. That ended an otherwise forgettable 3 for 10, three turnover first half for Tatum.
And so Boston found itself down a manageable 15 at the break despite committing 11 turnovers, despite shooting 3 for 12 on threes and despite the Heat shooting 51 percent in the first half.
Spoelstra went 10 deep in the first half, using Gabe Vincent as his first reserve and opting for Caleb Martin and Duncan Robinson over Oladipo, who was then needed for 20 second-half minutes in Butler’s absence.