The NBA’s Eastern Conference Championship trophy went into the visiting locker room at TD Garden on Monday night. Set atop two packing trunks with metallic trim, the trophy — a sterling silver replica of a basketball — was a draw for the Miami Heat, who cruised to a resounding 103-84 victory over the Boston Celtics in the game. 7 in the conference finals.
Players and staff, dressed in NBA Finals hats and T-shirts, positioned themselves near the trophy for photos and selfies, recalling the team’s beautiful struggle before an overnight flight to Denver. The championship starts on Thursday.
“We never thought it would be easy,” Miami forward Bam Adebayo said.
The Heat’s resurgence as the No. 8 seed in the East has surprised everyone but them. Even as they struggled through the regular season, losing as much as they won, coach Erik Spoelstra stuck to his approach. Spoelstra said they can improve if they continue to focus on their day-to-day work. There’s nothing particularly glamorous about it—meeting after disappointing losses, watching film, training hard.
“I think people can probably relate to this team,” Spoelstra said. “Professional sports is a reflection of life sometimes, things don’t always go your way. The inevitable setbacks happen, it’s how you deal with it collectively. There are so many ways it can go: it can drain your spirit. You can let a team down for any reason.
“With this group, it’s motivated us and brought us closer and made us tougher.”
They’ll need that toughness against the top-seeded Nuggets, who secured their first trip to the NBA Finals by completing a sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals a week ago. The Heat are the second eighth seed since the 1998-99 Knicks to reach the championship round in the current playoff format.
“Everybody’s confidence is so high,” said Heat forward Jimmy Butler, who was named the series’ Most Valuable Player after scoring 28 points in Game 7. So we’re going to hit the ground running when we get to Denver, and I like our chances.
Restless and deep, the Nuggets have been the Heat’s toughest challenge to date. Asked at Butler’s postgame news conference how he and his teammates planned to slow down Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets’ star center and two-time MVP Butler said he was giving himself until midnight — it was 11:42 p.m. — before he started thinking about the upcoming series.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I have two days to figure it out.”
At this late stage, the Heat appear to be relishing ridiculous tests. They traveled a long way to reach the conference finals. They had to beat the Chicago Bulls in a play-in game to slip out of the postseason. They lost two rotation players, Tyler Hero and Victor Oladipo, to injuries in the first-round series against the East’s No. 1 seed, the Milwaukee Bucks.
After Miami won the first three games of its series with Boston, Spoelstra said “a lot of inclusive things” are motivating his team, but declined to elaborate. His players had more to come: They remembered being eliminated by the Celtics in the conference finals last season, especially disappointing as the Heat were in first place in the East and the streak went to seven games.
By this time, the Heat had taken a 3-0 series lead — and promptly lost three in a row, including a brutal, last-second loss when the Celtics’ Derrick White converted a putback layup at the buzzer. A foul 3-pointer. The heat may have crashed. Instead, they sank into a shallow well of perseverance.
“Sometimes you have to suffer for the things you love,” Spoelstra added: “Sometimes you have to laugh at the things that make you cry.”
On Monday, in front of a hostile Boston crowd that was at fever pitch during player introductions, the Heat appeared intent on drowning out the noise, relying on their defense. The Celtics missed 10 of their 3-point attempts in the first quarter. The Heat led by 17 points before halftime.
Caleb Martin, a small forward who found his way into the starting lineup for Games 6 and 7, has been the Heat’s most consistent player in the series. He scored 26 points in Game 7 and made 11 of his 16 shots, including four 3-pointers.
Gabe Vincent, the team’s starting point guard, played the final two games with a sprained ankle. And Duncan Robinson came off the bench to make timely 3-pointers.
“We have some hoopers,” Butler said. “We have some real deal basketball players who can score, defend and pass and win games for us.”
After losing to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals last season, the Heat role players were different in the series against the Celtics. But obstacles — both predictable and unexpected — stymied them even before they could get together for the preseason.
In the sudden absence of first-year Celtics head coach Ime Udoka last season, he stamped a defensive mindset on the team. But in September, less than a week into training camp, the Celtics suspended him for the season for a “violation of team policy.”
The entire situation cast an unpleasant shadow over the Celtics as they tried to focus on the upcoming season. “It’s been hell,” Marcus Smart, the team’s starting point guard and last season’s Defensive Player of the Year, said at the time.
Instead of going outside the organization to hire an experienced coach to replace Udoka, the team prioritized continuity by temporarily elevating Joe Mazzulla, an assistant on Udoka’s staff.
The Celtics hired Mazzulla as permanent head coach in February and officially severed ties with Udoka, whom the Houston Rockets hired as head coach last month.
But Boston collapsed in the final weeks of the regular season, slipping to No. 2 in the East behind Milwaukee and needing six games to eliminate the Atlanta Hawks in the first round.
During the Celtics’ conference semifinal matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers, the pressure only increased on Mazzulla — and the team’s two stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Tatum and Brown were inconsistent as the streak extended to seven games.
But after Tatum scored 51 points in a series-winning tour de force against the 76ers, the Celtics ran into the Heat, paying back with an eager and experienced opponent in mind.
The Heat didn’t let up against the Celtics — not after a season of growth under Spoelstra, Butler filling his still-unknown teammates with confidence, and not against an opponent that buried Miami’s championship dream a year ago.
“No one is satisfied,” Butler said. “We’re not doing anything. We’re not playing to win the Eastern Conference — we’re playing to win the whole thing.
“Total coffee junkie. Tv ninja. Unapologetic problem solver. Beer expert.”