For the past two days, the Celtics’ march to the NBA Finals had begun to feel like a formality. In the afterglow of his team’s Western Conference finals victory, Warriors forward Draymond Green declared as such.
And with a rowdy Friday night crowd ready at TD Garden, and Miami’s 20-point scorer Tyler Herro once again ruled out, everything seemed to be set up for a party.
But the Heat did not wilt. Miami All-Star Jimmy Butler had a masterful performance and the Celtics simply had no answers, as the Heat pushed to a 111-103 win to even the series at 3. Game 7 will be played in Miami on Sunday night.
Butler made 16 of 29 shots and finished with 47 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists. Jayson Tatum had 30 points and 9 rebounds for Boston, and Derrick White had 22 points, 11 in the fourth quarter.
The Celtics trailed by as many as 13 in the third quarter and whittled the deficit to 82-75 by the start of the fourth. White sparked the comeback, scoring eight points before drilling a 3-pointer from the right corner with 4:43 left, giving Boston a 97-94 lead.
With the score tied at 99, Jaylen Brown missed two free throws, and at the other end Butler converted a three-point play. Tatum was stripped and White fouled P.J. Tucker, whose free throws gave Miami a 104-99 lead with 1:45 left.
A Tatum runner pulled Boston within 105-101, and after a solid defensive possession, Butler drilled a tough, contested 20-footer with the shot clock running down to stretch the lead to 107-101. Boston made a final push, down by four with 12 seconds left, but a blocking call on Victor Oladipo was overturned to a charge.
“We’re frustrated,” White said. “But if it was easy, it wouldn’t be us. We’re going to get on this plane, we’re going to go down to Miami and try to get the big win in Game 7. We’ve been here before, and we’ve got a lot of confidence in our group.”
Observations from the game:
⋅ The Heat were loading up on Tatum, as teams tend to do, and he did well passing out of double teams and still finished with 30 points. Brown had one third-quarter flurry that pushed the Celtics back into it, but otherwise, the two were mostly subdued. They combined to take just seven shots in the second half. (And Tatum played the entire half, while Brown played all but four minutes of it.)
Yes, Derrick White caught fire, but that’s unacceptable. Tatum’s 12 shot attempts were his fewest since a Feb. 8 game against the Nets, when he took 11 in just 27 minutes.
“Knowing they’re going to go after him, load up on him like always,” coach Ime Udoka said. “There’s nothing new as far as that. Just our execution, whether he was the handler, screener, wasn’t as crisp as it needed to be and we didn’t get a chance to attack the numbers behind it.”
Brown and Tatum had 36 of Boston’s 46 first-half points. But that meant there was a glaring lack of help. The rest of the team combined to go 3 for 18.
⋅ The crowd was absolutely juiced at the start. Fans roared each time a Celtic just came out to warm up, and they stood for almost the entire first half. But Boston didn’t do much to capitalize on that early juice. Seven minutes in, it trailed by 10.
Based on the past two games, the Heat may have wilted early if the Celtics hit them with the first punch. It was a missed opportunity.
⋅ Butler was the main reason the Heat led for most of the first half. He had appeared bothered by his knee issue the last few games, but at the start Friday, he had his burst again. He mixed crafty drives to the rim with unusually accurate 3-point shooting and went to halftime with 21 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists.
“Butler was aggressive,” Udoka said. “We didn’t match his intensity.”
⋅ At some point, either Butler, Tatum or Brown would need some help, and Butler was the one who received it in the third quarter. Strus and Oladipo combined to hit four 3-pointers and give the Heat an 82-75 lead at the start of the fourth.
Miami finished with 15 3-pointers, its most since Game 1 of its opening-round win over the Hawks.
⋅ With 11:26 left in the fourth quarter, Grant Williams was called for his fifth foul when Butler pulled up and hit a jumper at the free-throw line. The Celtics instantly challenged the call.
Butler got Williams in the air on the play and appeared to kick his leg forward slightly, but the officials ruled that Williams’s contact preceded that, making it an unsuccessful challenge.
It may have been a bad spot to use the challenge, because Butler’s basket would have counted anyway. But Williams at least could have avoided his fifth. Regardless, it was a significant moment.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.