TD Garden was nearly full a half-hour before tipoff Friday night, with fans standing at their seats and roaring as the Celtics came onto the floor, one by one, just to take warm-up shots. The intensity was palpable, and the moment these fans were given something to celebrate, they were ready to pounce on it.
After the Celtics walloped the Heat in the last two games of these conference finals, setting up this close-out game at home in the perfect spot, the final step had begun to feel academic.
This aging Miami team had appeared battered, bullied, and just worn down. The young, hungry Celtics were finally healthy, finally whole, and finally ready to move past this stage after being stopped here in three of the last five seasons.
Boston’s players tried to preach caution after their Game 5 win in Miami on Wednesday, but no one was really buying it. Even when the Heat pushed to an early lead in Game 6 Friday, it seemed just a matter of time before the home team’s furious, rabid rally would unfold.
But in this case, Heat All-Star Jimmy Butler pushed back one comeback attempt after another. He drilled big shots in big moments on this big stage, and eventually led his team to a 111-103 win that forced a Game 7 in Miami on Sunday night.
Butler made 16 of 29 shots and finished with 47 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists. Amid all the talk about Jayson Tatum’s ascension, the 32-year-old veteran loudly and emphatically made it clear that he was the best player on the floor on this night.
“It wasn’t a matter of schematics or things like that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Jimmy just brought his competitive will tonight. It was a will that would not let us lose.”
TD Garden had a funereal feel during the game’s final moments, but as much as it felt like an end, it was not. The Celtics still have a chance to advance to the Finals, and their road performances during these playoffs have provided plenty of reasons for why it could still happen.
The Celtics are now 5-4 at TD Garden this postseason and 6-2 everywhere else. They’ve already won twice in Miami during this series, punishing the Heat by a total of 38 points in Games 2 and 5.
“We’ve been resilient all year, and this is a different test,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “Obviously this game hurt to lose on our home floor, but we’ve got to have a short-term memory.”
Added Derrick White: “Yeah, I mean, we’re frustrated, but if it was easy, it wouldn’t be us.”
Jayson Tatum had 30 points and Brown added 20, but Boston might have needed more from them. The duo combined to attempt 39 shots per game during the regular season but took 25 on Friday, including just seven during the second half.
“I think it was just kind of how the flow of the game was going,” said Tatum, who attempted 12 shots, his second lowest total of this season.
The Heat were without their second-leading scorer, Tyler Herro, for the third game in a row because of a groin injury. During the last two, his absence was glaring, with Miami’s offense appearing slow and clunky and unable to get any rhythm against the NBA’s top-ranked defense.
But on Friday they finally got the burst of outside shooting they’d been waiting for, finishing with 15 3-pointers, their second-highest total of these playoffs, and the most since their Game 1 win over the Hawks in the opening round.
Butler, who was 2 for 12 in the series up to this point, connected on 4 of 8. Max Strus, who was 0 for 11 over the last two games, hit 3 of 8.
The Celtics trailed by as many as 13 points in the third quarter and whittled the deficit to 82-75 by the start of the fourth. White (22 points) sparked the comeback with eight quick points and later gave Boston a 97-94 lead with a 3-pointer at the 4:43 mark.
With the score tied at 99, Brown missed two free throws and at the other end Butler converted a three-point play.
“Just matching his intensity from the start wasn’t there,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “He put his head down, got to the basket, way too many easy shots or point-blank lay-ups and just poor defense on our part on him, when we had been really good in the past understanding that he’s going to come out and put it on his shoulders.”
After Miami stretched its lead to six, a runner by Tatum pulled Boston within 105-101. But after a strong defensive possession, Butler drained a contested 20-footer just before the shot-clock expired to push the lead back to 107-101.
“He came out from the jump,” White said, “and kind of put his imprint on the game.”