MIAMI — Speaking moments after a stunning finish to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra didn’t have any answers on Saturday night at the Kaseya Center.
The Heat had pulled out all the stops. They moved hot hand Caleb Martin into the starting lineup. They shortened their rotation, burdening their stars with big minutes. They did everything in their power to avoid another trip to Boston.
Through 47 minutes and 57 seconds of physical, and often ugly, basketball, Miami’s plan had seemingly worked. With the home crowd roaring, Jimmy Butler knocked down three clutch free throws to put his team up by 1 with three seconds left. The Heat looked in position to punch their tickets to the NBA Finals.
But those few remaining seconds were enough for the Celtics. On the final play of the game, Derrick White inbounded the ball to Marcus Smart, crashed the boards, and managed to put back Smart’s missed 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded.
Heat players and coaches stood at their bench in disbelief.
Instead of preparing to travel to Denver for Game 1 of the Finals, the Heat must return to Boston for Monday night’s Game 7. They have lost three straight after leading the series, 3-0, and are on the verge of a historic collapse.
“At 11:35 p.m. right now, I have no idea how we are going to get this done,” Spoelstra said. “I’m as shocked by that play as anyone. I just know in the next 48 hours, we are going to figure this out. There’s nothing better than Game 7s.”
Despite trailing for the majority of the game — including by 10 with less than four minutes to play — the Heat fought their way back Saturday night. Despite their two stars, Butler and Bam Adebayo, shooting a combined 9 of 37 (24.3 percent), the Heat gave themselves a chance.
But, after yet another emotional letdown in a closeout game, this time in the final tenths of a second, do they have anything left in the tank?
Gabe Vincent, who returned to action after missing Game 5, is managing an ankle injury. Butler sat for just 80 seconds, playing the entire second half. Adebayo, too, played the whole second half.
Given the drop-off in Miami’s rotation — Cody Zeller proved to be unplayable in his two minutes and Kyle Lowry is certainly showing his age — the Heat are going to rely heavily on their starters.
Using mental or physical exhaustion as an excuse, however, would be an affront to the famed “Heat Culture.”
“When you want something as special as a championship, I feel like every guy in our locker room would go through a brick wall to get that,” Adebayo said. “I don’t feel like fatigue or body fatigue or anything like that is going to stand in our way.”
If the Heat show they are out of gas in Game 7, Game 6 sure has the potential to be one they rue for some time. Boston shot just 7 of 35 on 3-pointers (20 percent). Jayson Tatum made just one of his nine field goals in the second half.
Considering the contributions from Miami’s role players — double-digit points from Martin, Vincent, Max Strus, and Duncan Robinson — it’s hard not to wonder if a strong offensive performance from Butler or Adebayo could have swung the outcome. Butler certainly seems to think so.
“If I’m better from jump street, we are not even in that position,” he said. “Everything that happened tonight, if I don’t go 5 for 21 [shooting] and turn the ball over and all of this good stuff, it’s a different story.
“I’ve got on a different hat up here and we’re getting ready to go to the Finals.”
Since Game 3, Butler and Adebayo have not demonstrated consistent levels of offensive aggression. But Spoelstra did not seem fazed by their poor shooting. And he did his best to express the same level of confidence he had after Games 4 and 5.
“I don’t give a damn what they shot,” he said. “We were up 1. We may win this thing as ugly as it’s ever been done. I don’t care what guys shoot. It’s the competitive will that I’m talking about, and those guys are going to bring it on — it’s the playoffs, so I have no idea what the day is, but I guess, Monday?”
The Heat have continued to say all the right things, all while the Celtics have evened the series. At TD Garden on Monday night, they’ll have one more opportunity to back up their words.
“If anything, no one’s taking us now, going in there,” Robinson said. “We’ll lick our wounds, band together, and find a way to get it done.”