Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s crushing 104-103 loss to the Boston Celtics on Saturday night at Kaseya Center in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. The eighth-seeded Heat has dropped three straight after taking a 3-0 series lead, forcing a East finals-deciding Game 7 on Monday in Boston (8:30 p.m., TNT):
This loss was as painful as it gets, and now the Heat must somehow regroup for a series-deciding Game 7 in a few days.
The Heat’s leading duo of Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler struggled for most of the night, combining for an inefficient 35 points on 9-of-37 (24.3 percent) shooting from the field.
Adebayo finished with 11 points on 4-of-16 shooting from the field, 13 rebounds and five assists.
Butler closed with 24 points on 5-of-21 shooting from the field and 12-of-14 shooting from the foul line, 11 rebounds and eight assists.
Despite off nights for both Adebayo and Butler, the Heat found itself just one stop away from punching its ticket to the NBA Finals on Saturday.
With the Heat trailing by two points with 16.9 seconds to play, Butler was fouled by Celtics enter Al Horford while shooting a three. Butler calmly sank all three free throws to put the Heat ahead by one point with three seconds left.
The Heat couldn’t finish the job.
After a Celtics timeout to advance the ball, guard Marcus Smart missed a three-pointer with one second on the clock. But Derrick White, the inbounder on the play, went straight to the rim as his defender Max Strus floated off of him to deny Jayson Tatum the ball.
By the time Strus went back to White, he was trailing him. That’s when the ball bounced off the rim and right into White’s hands for the game-winning putback layup as the final buzzer sounded to force a Game 7.
“I’m as shocked by that play as anyone,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
“Max did the right thing. Making that ball go anywhere but Jayson Tatum. That’s the only place it could have bounced to hurt us. I thought we had a lot of things covered on that play and sometimes things just don’t break your way. I don’t think there’s any regrets on that. It’s just a shame.”
Some Heat players left the court stunned and some left the court yelling in anger.
“Like I told the guys on the bench, I told the guys in the locker room, that if I play better, we’re not even in this position, honestly speaking,” Butler said. “And I will be better.”
This incredible ending was set up by an incredible comeback by the Heat.
The Heat trailed by as many as 10 points in the fourth quarter and by nine points with 3:04 to play, but used a 12-2 run to take that one-point lead in the final seconds.
Miami turned to its zone defense almost exclusively down the stretch to rally, as the Celtics missed 11 straight shots before hitting the game-winner. And Butler finally started to get a few shots to go in, scoring 13 points in the final 3:51.
“This group has a competitive will and a competitive want to win that is up there with any team I’ve ever coached,” Spoelstra said. “We were down ten and our guys just feel approximately normal in that kind of scenario. Made a bunch of plays. We got some timely defensively stops.”
But the Heat still finished one stop short of clinching a trip to the NBA Finals and avoiding a Game 7 in Boston.
“This is one hell of a series,” Spoelstra said. “At this time right now, I don’t know how we are going to get this done, but we are going up there and getting it done. And that’s what the next 48 hours is about.”
The Heat wasted the Celtics’ worst three-point shooting performance of the season because it couldn’t make shots from inside the paint.
The Heat was actually hot from three-point range for most of the game, shooting 9 of 15 (60 percent) from beyond the arc in the first half and finishing the game 14 of 30 (46.7 percent) from deep.
The Heat’s ridiculously inefficient shooting from around the basket proved to be the problem.
The Heat shot just 13 of 34 (38.2 percent) at the rim and 16 of 52 (30.8 percent) from inside the paint. For perspective, the Heat entered shooting 67.4 percent at the rim and 55.4 percent from inside the paint during this year’s playoffs.
Those struggles were enough to negate the Heat’s good three-point shooting and the Celtics’ three-point shooting issues in Game 6.
Boston shot a season-low 7 of 35 (20 percent) from three-point range, allowing the Heat to outscore the Celtics 42-21 from beyond the arc on Saturday.
The team that shot a higher percentage from three-point range won each of the first five games of the East finals. But that trend ended in Game 6 because of the Heat’s inability to make shots from inside the paint.
Tatum scored a game-high 31 points for the Celtics, but missed each of his eight three-point attempts. Jaylen Brown scored 26 points for Boston despite shooting 0 of 4 from beyond the arc.
The Heat made a change to its starting lineup, but it didn’t produce positive results in Game 6.
The Heat started Caleb Martin in Kevin Love’s place alongside Gabe Vincent, Strus, Butler and Adebayo. This lineup started two games this regular season, but Saturday marked the first time this group has started a game this postseason.
In this group’s limited time together, the unit has been very good. The Vincent-Strus-Butler-Martin-Adebayo combination entered Saturday with a plus/minus of plus 37 in 42 minutes together during this year’s playoffs and plus 27 in 25 minutes together during the East finals.
In Game 6, though, this lineup was outscored by eight points in 22 minutes together.
But Martin continued his impressive postseason in his second start of the playoffs, finishing Saturday’s loss with 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting from the field and 4-of-8 shooting from three-point range while grabbing a career-high 15 rebounds.
Martin is averaging 18.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while shooting 58.3 percent from the field and 46.2 percent on threes in the East finals.
“It meant a lot,” Martin said of the getting the start on Saturday. “I pride myself on being ready whenever my name is called, whether it be on the bench or starting. I knew there was a possibility, but just had to make sure I stayed ready.”
A new Heat starting lineup in Game 6 was expected after the Heat made a change midway through Thursday’s Game 5 loss in Boston. After opening that game with Love, the Heat started the second half of Game 5 with Haywood Highsmith in Love’s place.
The starting lineup of Vincent-Strus-Butler-Love-Adebayo opened 12 of the Heat’s 17 games in this year’s playoffs and has been a positive this postseason.
But Spoelstra decided to swap out Love for Martin because the unit with Love struggled against the speed of the Celtics’ smaller starting lineup. The Heat has been outscored by 10.8 points per 100 possessions with Love on the court in the East finals.
It’s worth noting that Vincent finished Game 6 with 15 points on 6-of-18 shooting from the field after missing Game 5 with a sprained ankle.
“Good enough to play,” Vincent said of how he felt physically on Saturday.
Love was moved out of the starting lineup and wasn’t a member of the Heat’s bench rotation either in Game 6.
Instead, Cody Zeller continued to play as the Heat’s backup center on Saturday.
The decision to play Zeller over Love surprised some, considering the Celtics outscored the Heat by 14 points in Zeller’s minutes during this series.
That negative trend continued in Game 6, when the Heat was outscored by seven points in the 2:21 that Zeller played in the first quarter. Adebayo quickly re-entered and played the rest of the game.
Love received his first DNP-CD since (did not play, coach’s decision) on Saturday since joining the Heat during the mid-February All-Star break.
With Zeller playing just two minutes, the Heat essentially played just two players off the bench.
Duncan Robinson totaled 13 points on 3-of-6 shooting from deep in 20 minutes off the bench. He played all but three seconds of the fourth quarter, missing two open game-tying threes in the final minutes.
Kyle Lowry recorded eight points on 3-of-6 shooting from the field, two rebounds and three assists in 18 minutes off the bench.
The Heat is one loss away from falling on the wrong side of history.
No NBA team has ever rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-7 series in 150 such scenarios. The Celtics are one win away from pulling it off, only needing a Game 7 victory in Boston on Monday to do the unprecedented.
Simply forcing a Game 7 after trailing 3-0 in a series is an accomplishment.
The Celtics are the only the fourth team to come back from a 3-0 series deficit to force a Game 7. The last time it happened was 20 years ago in the 2003 playoffs, when the Portland Trail Blazers dropped the first three games of a first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks before forcing a Game 7 that the Mavericks won.
But the Heat can still make its own history by winning Game 7 on Monday to become just the second No. 8 seed in league history to advance to the NBA Finals.
“First to four,” Adebayo said of the message in the Heat’s locker room following Saturday’s loss. “We knew the series wasn’t going to be easy. People act like we’re shocked that we’re in dogfight with the Boston Celtics. But first to four.”
Meanwhile, the Denver Nuggets already clinched a spot in the NBA Finals and are getting an extended break after completing the 4-0 sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals on Monday night. Game 1 of the NBA Finals is Thursday.