When the Celtics arrived in Orlando to restart this NBA season nearly three months ago, no one knew what to expect, but they all knew it would not be easy.
They were planted on the Disney World campus along with the rest of the best teams in the world, and they had to find a way to move forward without their friends and family, without the rowdy TD Garden fans, and without any real sense of what they were facing.
Along the way, though, enchanting possibilities began to sprout. Boston swept the 76ers, won a grueling seven-game series against the defending champion Raptors, and seemed to be rewarded with an Eastern Conference finals matchup against the fifth-seeded Heat, who had flicked away the mighty Bucks in the other semifinal.
But it soon became clear that the Heat are no plucky upstart. They are a team with a rising superstar in Bam Adebayo, and they are tough and ready and fearless. And on Sunday night, they used a devastating fourth-quarter surge to take a 125-113 Game 6 win and a 4-2 conference finals victory. Miami will face the Lakers for the NBA title.
“I believed in this group,” Jayson Tatum said of the Celtics. “I think we were capable. We had more than enough to get the job done. We just let a couple slip away.”
For a moment, it looked like the Celtics would find more elimination-game magic. A late eight-point deficit was flipped into a six-point Boston lead with nine minutes left, and the hope and momentum on Boston’s side was palpable. But the Celtics could not complete the job, could not give themselves one more chance, could not find a way to the Finals, as they had no answer for the Heat’s crushing 26-6 run.
Adebayo was masterful, with 32 points, 14 rebounds, and 5 assists. Miami made 56.3 percent of its shots and 48.1 percent of its 3-pointers. Tatum, who took his own step toward superstardom in Orlando, had 24 points, 11 assists and 7 rebounds.
Observations from the game:
▪ The Celtics will be fine. They’re young and talented. But this did feel like a rare opportunity for them. The injury-ravaged Warriors essentially took the year off, two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo was cleared out of the way, and Boston played the Raptors without any homecourt disadvantage, as would have also been the case had they faced the Lakers.
▪ Adebayo shouldered the blame for his team’s Game 5 loss, but he certainly was not at any fault in this one. After the Celtics pushed in front, 96-90, Adebayo sparked Miami’s fourth-quarter rally. He attacked Celtics center Daniel Theis on four consecutive plays, resulting in a dunk, an assist, a three-point play and another shooting foul, which was Theis’s sixth. The Heat never trailed again.
“[Adebayo] dominated that fourth quarter,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Even the plays where he didn’t score, his presence was so impactful. And it put us in a real bind with the ability to guard him.”
▪ The Heat hurt Boston with penetration in the third quarter so rookie forward Grant Williams checked in with the Celtics trailing 82-74 to give them a more switchable defensive lineup. He did not attempt a shot during his 10-minute stint but the Celtics' defense was certainly steadied. Boston went on a 22-8 run with Williams on the floor before the Heat scored six straight points to tie it.
“The best stretch of defense we had all night — maybe the only good stretch of defense — was when we were switching with Grant,” Stevens said. “But that got taken and exposed a little bit as well there toward the end of it.”
Williams’s solid play in Orlando was certainly a bright spot for the Celtics.
▪ Heat wing Andre Iguodala, who is just a 30 percent 3-point shooter, went 4 for 4 from beyond the arc. That was an unlucky result for the Celtics, but their defense was also all but begging him to take these shots. There wasn’t a defender near him, and he made Boston pay. His back-to-back 3s late in the third quarter stretched Miami’s lead to 82-74.
▪ Gordon Hayward, playing in his fourth game since returning from an ankle sprain, never appeared comfortable Sunday. He finished with 12 points thanks to a couple of late, mostly meaningless baskets, but added just 1 rebound and 2 assists. He missed one wide-open third-quarter layup. The Celtics were expecting Hayward to gradually improve during this series as he shook off rust, but his most impactful game was probably his first one, Boston’s Game 3 win.
▪ It was another rough shooting start for Tatum, who opened the game by missing seven shots in a row. This time he snapped out of his funk in the second quarter, though, and provided several big moments. Tatum’s continued ascension in Orlando was probably the biggest development concerning Boston’s future.
“If you want those expectations, if you want to be that guy that’s capable of doing those things you’ve got to go through some tough things, some ups and downs, some stuff I can learn from,” Tatum said. “I think I can learn a lot moving forward, from this season and this series.”
▪ The Celtics had a scare in the opening minute of the fourth quarter when Jaylen Brown had a steal, coasted in for a dunk and took a hard, awkward landing on his left leg after it appeared he was clipped by Heat forward Jimmy Butler. But Brown stayed in the game and even had another steal and fast-break basket just minutes later.
▪ The Celtics tried to make a final push by going to their “best five” lineup trailing 109-102 with 4:31 left. But it seemed like they were trying to erase the deficit with one hit, firing up one errant 3-pointer after another.
“I thought we got some really good looks,” Kemba Walker, who finished with 20 points, said of the fourth quarter. “Just, they didn’t drop. Whenever we did miss, those guys, they brought it back with great pace and made the plays and that started it up.”
▪ Stevens was asked after the game about his final locker-room message to his team.
“Well, my message, I think, was simple,” he said. “I really appreciated the way that they played basketball all year. I really appreciated the way they competed. I really appreciated the way they blocked out stuff that didn’t matter. I really appreciated the way that they inspired with their voice while they were here, and before. I appreciated the way they empowered all the different NBA employees that weren’t here, including Celtics employees, and everybody else that benefited from them putting everything they had into this. And I appreciated the way they played and found joy and stayed together. We had one minor dustup. That’s pretty good for a calendar year with a group. It’s pretty amazing, if you think about it.”