After Game 4 of their second-round series, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra made more than a handful of references to the more than a handful of late-clock shots that the Philadelphia 76ers had made. The Heat had lost by eight points, but Spoelstra thought that they were in a decent position down the stretch, if only Philadelphia hadn’t made so many “crippling” plays.
“It’s a slim margin for error on both sides,” he said. “And you just have to make plays at timely moments.”
Spoelstra made these comments almost three weeks ago, but that’s where my mind went after Miami’s season-saving win in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on Friday. This time, it was the Heat who won by eight points, 111-103, and this time, it was the Boston Celtics who were left to lament defensive possessions that went well for most of the 24-second shot clock but ended horribly.
Boston coach Ime Udoka said that Miami “made timely 3s, specifically late in the shot clock, where we didn’t contest or get out on shooters as well as we should’ve.”
“I think there were, I don’t know, three or four that I can remember, where they just — last second [of the] shot clock, tough make,” guard Derrick White said. “I mean, those are kind of backbreakers. Especially down the stretch.”
White said that the Celtics’ poor start had given the Heat confidence early on, and “those shots seem to go in when you do that.” Jaylen Brown put it more bluntly.
“They played an amazing game,” Brown said. “They made some crazy shots. But we gotta play great defense again and force them to make some of those shots again.”
The biggest one came with 44 seconds left in the game when Jimmy Butler capped a playoff performance for the ages with a turnaround jumper off a baseline out-of-bounds play with 2.2 seconds on the shot clock, foot on the line, hand in his face, Boston’s collective jaw on the floor.
That gave the Heat a six-point lead in a game that was tied with three minutes remaining. Jayson Tatum had made a floater on the previous possession, and then White, defending Butler in isolation, slapped the ball out of his hands and out of bounds. If Boston had just gotten that stop, who knows what might have happened?
“Sometimes you just need your best players and your guy to make plays,” Spoelstra said. “And he was able to do that. In those moments of truth, when we really needed it, and as their defense stepped up, and as the game got to four, six, he found a way to get us a really important bucket.”
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Butler finished with 47 points, the most he’s ever scored in a playoff game, on 16-for-29 shooting, including 4-for-8 from 3-point range, and made all 11 of his free throw attempts. He had nine rebounds, eight assists, four steals, a block and only one turnover in 46 minutes. This was a tour de force, and that dagger was not the only time Butler bailed out his team.
When people refer to any of the masters of the midrange as a “security blanket,” they’re talking about plays like the one Butler made in the third quarter, isolated against White:
The first option on most Heat possessions is not a Butler iso, especially against a defense like this. When they’re playing against the shot clock, though, they want the ball in his hands, in the middle of the floor. Early in the fourth quarter, he got downhill off Tucker’s screen, got Grant Williams in the air with a pump fake, then, with three seconds on the clock, nailed a free-throw-line jumper, plus the foul:
The craziest shot of the night, however, might have been Max Strus‘ catch-and-shoot 3 early in the second half. He caught it on the move, only had a second to get it off and only narrowly avoided getting blocked by Tatum. Before this went in, Strus had missed 14 consecutive 3s and had not made a field goal since Game 3:
As absurd as that was, it was exactly how Miami had drawn it up. The buzzer-beating shot that Kyle Lowry made in the second quarter, also after a sideline out of bounds, was decidedly not. This is a jab-step 3 against the Defensive Player of the Year, and, as I write this, I keep watching it, looking at his feet, amazed that he even attempted this:
Spoelstra said that Lowry, who finished with 18 points, 10 assists, four rebounds, a steal and a block in 37 minutes, gives the team a certain calmness and confidence. Part of that is running the offense and getting the ball where it needs to go. Another part is “sometimes he’ll just make a big-time play at the end of the clock, something that he’s never maybe practiced on or attempted before. He just has a flair for the moment. He’s one of the all-time clutch players in this league.”
With four minutes to go in the third quarter, Boston had cut a 12-point deficit in half, scoring on three straight offensive possessions and forcing missed 3s on three straight defensive possessions. Then, late in the clock, he instructed Victor Oladipo to cut down the middle and sprung open for a deep catch-and-shoot 3:
Minutes later, the Celtics were again trying to put a run together, and they had some momentum, thanks to Robert Williams III blocking a 3 on one end and dunking on the other. On the next possession, though, Boston got its wires crossed as Butler drove baseline, leading to a swing-swing 3 for Strus that extended Miami’s lead to double-digits:
The Celtics started the third quarter on a 22-12 run, and after White had created a kick out 3 for Al Horford and then knocked down a corner 3 himself, it looked like another Heat possession had gone nowhere. Then Lowry and Butler went into improvisation mode — Lowry ghosted a screen for Butler, and Butler handed it off to him, screening Tatum out of the play and giving Lowry just enough room to get this 3 off as Marcus Smart switched onto him:
That is surely not a shot that Lowry practices regularly. But thanks to plays like this, there Spoelstra was after the game, talking about slim margins again, this time from a totally different vantage point, two days away from Game 7 and a chance to return to the NBA Finals.
“This is the way it should be with these two teams,” Spoelstra said. “It should go seven games. The margin for error on both sides is so small.”