Miami entered these Eastern Conference Finals in the unusual predicament of being both a No. 1 seed and a clear underdog in the series, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers.
On Tuesday night, the Heat showed everybody what it can do with those odds.
Buoyed by a 22-2 stampede to start the third quarter, the Heat reversed momentum suddenly and adamantly, and dispatched the Celtics, 118-107, to take a 1-0 lead in the series.
As usual this postseason, Jimmy Butler spearheaded Miami with 41 points and across-the-board contributions, including exceptional defense. It was his third 40-point game in 12 playoff games this spring.
“I continue to play basketball the right way,” he said.
And the Heat did marvelous work in the second half on Celtics superstar Jayson Tatum, who scored 21 in the first half but shot just 1 for 7 with six turnovers in the second half.
Down 62-54 at the break, the Heat followed its worst defensive half of the postseason (including 60 percent Boston shooting), with a defensive clinic to open the third, electrifying a sellout crowd at FTX Arena.
“Guys were really disappointed at halftime,” Erik Spoelstra said. “I barely needed to say anything. Guys were disappointed by our defensive effort.”
The Celtics shot 0 for 7 from the field with four turnovers during that 22-2 Heat avalanche to open the third, which included 11 points from Butler, two blocks and a steal from Bam Adebayo, stout defense by P.J. Tucker on Tatum, five points from Max Strus and a three from Gabe Vincent.
Boston didn’t hit a basket in the third until Robert Williams’ layup with 4:53 left in the quarter.
A 9-0 Celtics run then closed Miami’s lead to three, but the Heat revved up again, unleashing a 17-3 burst to push the lead to 93-76 after three.
The odds of putting together 22-2 and 17-3 runs at different times of the same quarter are remote. But doing that against the NBA’s best team since Jan. 1, against a Boston team that led the conference in points allowed per 100 possessions this season?
Now that’s impressive.
By the time the destruction was done, Miami had outscored Boston 39-14 in a third quarter that featured 17 points and four steals from Butler and 10 points and 2 blocks from Vincent.
Boston shot 2 for 15 from the field, including 0 for 7 on threes, with eight turnovers in the third quarter.
“I felt our energy shifted,” Adebayo said of the third quarter. “We started getting in transition and our crowd got into it, being able to get halfcourt stops and being able to run in transition.”
These maniacal third quarter starts are becoming a thing for the Heat, which outscored Philadelphia 19-4 to start the third quarter of its close-out Game 6 win against the 76ers.
At halftime, Udonis Haslem’s “voice was heard a lot,” Vincent said. “PJ’s voice heard a lot, Jimmy, Kyle [Lowry]. Other guys chimed in; everyone said something. All 17 said something. It was very player led. Spo came in and cleaned up the details.”
The Celtics hung around after taking those two big third-quarter punches, scoring 10 in a row at one point in the fourth, pulling to within seven with 1:25 left in the fourth quarter as Boston was about to pull its starters.
Butler continued his magical postseason finishing with those 41 points and adding nine rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks. He shot 12 for 19 from the field and 17 for 18 from the line.
What’s more, the player that Butler was defending shot 4 for 13 against him, per ESPN.
“Jimmy inspired everybody in the third quarter,” Spoelstra said. “Every pocket in the game where we needed to control, Jimmy had his fingerprints on it. You’re seeing great two way basketball on both sides.”
Butler entered this series first in the NBA in steals in these playoffs, (2.1 per game) fourth in scoring (28.7), 14th in rebounding (7.6) and 19th in assists at 5.4.
Meanwhile, the Heat improved to 7-0 this postseason in games started by Vincent, who filled in again for the injured Kyle Lowry and finished with 17 points, three assists and just one turnover.
“After the half, I wanted to be more aggressive,” Vincent said. “I was just trying to make plays defensively.”
Adebayo had a quiet first half (six points on two shots, three rebounds) and was admonished by ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith at halftime. He was far better in the second half, including two blocks in that third quarter.
Tyler Herro gave the Heat an early lift with 15 first half points en route to finishing with 18 points and 8 rebounds.
Strus scored all 11 of his points in the second half.
Tucker left midway through the second quarter with an ankle injury but returned to start the third quarter after getting the ankle re-taped, and that seemed to inspire his teammates. He had a steal and Tucker, Butler and others suffocated Tatum in that remarkable third quarter.
It seemed early on that what worked splendidly against Atlanta’s Trae Young and Philadelphia’s James Harden might not work against Tatum, not with his size (6-8), shooting, playmaking and defensive dexterity.
Tatum, who has cemented his status as an elite player in this postseason, scored 21 in the first half, pushing Boston to a 62-54 lead in the half.
But Tatum went 0 for 2 with those six turnovers in the third quarter, closing the night with 29.
As the Heat did with Young and Harden, the Heat double-teamed Tatum at times and tried to take the ball out of his hands. It clearly worked in the second half.
Jaylen Brown shot 0 for 4 with two turnovers in that third quarter, then scored 13 in the fourth to finish with 24.
Celtics center Robert Williams - who had missed significant time over the past six weeks with a knee injury - returned to the starting lineup and set the tone early in the absence of Al Horford, who’s in COVID protocol.
Williams had an impact on both ends in a 12-point, 5-rebound first half and finished with 18 and 9.
But Adebayo was the better player in the second half, finishing with 10 points, 4 rebounds and 4 blocks on a night he took only four shots.
Besides missing Horford, the Celtics played without Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, who was sidelined by a foot injury.
With two starters sidelined, Celtics coach Ime Udoka played only eight until the final moments.
Erik Spoelstra went nine deep, using Herro, Victor Oladipo, Dewyane Dedmon and Caleb Martin off the bench but once again bypassing Duncan Robinson.
But Boston, behind 10 first quarter points from Tatum, led 28-25 after 1, and then surged ahead by 13 in the second, with Tatum scoring 11 in the quarter and Payton Pritchard 7.
Of Boston’s 62 first half points, 42 came in the paint.
But then suddenly, and dramatically, everything changed, and the Heat once again began to resemble the defensive dynamo that went 8-3 in postseason entering this series.
Game 2 is 8:30 p.m. Thursday at FTX Arena.