BOSTON — The Miami Heat may need to clear some space in the Championship Alley.
That’s the name of the walk from their home court to the locker room, which is filled with wall-sized reminders of the greatness of Miami’s past. Gary Payton’s jumper who started his comeback at the 2006 Finals. Blood drips down Udonis Haslem’s face in the fourth quarter of a key playoff game. LeBron James’ icy stare in the legendary first quarter of his 45-point masterpiece to win Game 6 in Boston in 2012. And many more.
Heat President Pat Riley occasionally takes guests along the long walk, pausing in front of the giant images above the deep red carpet to share the backstories.
Perhaps Friday night’s photo that makes it onto the wall next is of Jimmy Butler rising in front of the Boston Celtics bench and playing his 46th minute of an Elimination Game 6 that immediately went down in history books. 2021-22 Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and comeback wannabe hero Derrick White watched Butler blow up. Everyone in TD Garden stood and stared at Butler.
Two days earlier, he couldn’t jump anywhere near that high. Four days ago, forget it. But that night, his ailing right knee, which has started to improve over the last two days after aggressive treatment and as much rest as possible, allowed it to happen. Butler made the crushing 20-foot jumper with 43 seconds remaining, sealing the Heat’s 111-103 win to force a Game 7 on Sunday (8:30 p.m. on ESPN).
“I don’t pay too much attention to the audience. I want to win,” said Butler. “I really want to play basketball. I will do whatever my team and my team-mates ask of me.”
After aggravating his knee in Game 3 of this series – struggling with an IT band issue during the playoffs – Butler was a shell of himself. He played when maybe he shouldn’t have, and it showed right away . His popping and heaving were almost non-existent. Midway through Game 5, the Celtics’ defense openly admitted what any onlooker could see as Boston backed away from him and heeded others: Butler was no threat.
But just minutes into Game 6, Butler jumped into a fast lane for the first of four steals, beating everyone to the other end for the fast break score. He exploded off his feet a few moments later to catch a rebound in traffic. Another message was immediately apparent: Butler was back – and so was the Heat.
Butler carried Miami throughout the game, amassing 47 points with nine rebounds and eight assists. After getting to the foul line a total of six times in Games 3-5, he was there 11 times in Game 6. And he made them all. He even made a season-high four 3-pointers.
When it was over, he had the third most points in a single-eliminator road game in the NBA’s 75-year history. He scored or assisted with 68 points, the most in a conference finals playoff playoff in history, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“Jimmy Butler is a great competitor, he really is,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “You can misdefine him in many different ways, but his competitive spirit is as high as anyone who’s played this game. He left his fingerprints on this game.”
Spoelstra, now a veteran of dozens of these high-stakes games (especially in Boston), has been steady and confident all week. Even as the Heat gasped through losses in Games 4 and 5 and struggled to crack 80 points.
On Friday morning, as the Heat engaged in a light workout at a gym near their hotel – and after a quick assessment saw sixth man of the year Tyler Herro miss a third straight game – Spoelstra was deep in his pocket , knowing he would seize “a great opportunity” when he and his team are “feeling most alive”.
There was a gleam in Spoelstra’s eyes and confidence in his demeanor. He lives his life with incredible discipline, supported by Riley’s guidance and trains that way. He wears the same outfit every day and never stops doing his job, no matter the position.
That consistency amidst turmoil showed in Butler and the rest of the team. Kyle Lowry showed up on the court with three and a half hours before tipoff to try to loosen his ailing hamstring and then worked his way up to 18 points and 10 assists. After missing 19 consecutive 3-pointers in three games, Max Strus finally pulled off a shot of desperation in the third quarter and then made two more.
“It’s not like I guarantee anything. All I know is how our boys tick,” said Spoelstra hours later after his team had achieved the tremendous victory, his mood was hardly better. “What you’re hoping for is that that gets the best out of you and takes you to another level. Over the course of a long series like this, you get uncomfortably pushed. Sometimes you lose along the way.”
The Heat couldn’t afford another loss and it looked like they were headed for it. Even the waiting opponent in the Finals assumed on national television, as did the Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green on Thursday, that the Celtics would progress. You still could. Miami’s win on Friday night didn’t decide the series — just another chance.
“We’ve been saying it throughout the series, it’s not done,” Butler said. “We have game 7 in the crib.”