Most of Vincent’s teammates are long gone from their Miami-area homes as they face the collective challenge of how to bounce back from a soul-crushing loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
But back in the locker room, with an oversized image of the NBA’s Larry O’Brien championship trophy stitched into the carpet and a series of murals depicting the franchise’s past victories in a tunnel leading to the court, the mood was bleak. Lyrics from a song about heartbreak didn’t help. They all came out thin and hollow, like piped music from Vincent’s iPhone through a radiator.
It hit like a train and I ran away speechless;
I have nothing to say, everything hurts.
“Nice song,” said Vincent.
Nothing about this season has been easy for the Heat, and Vincent hinted that some poetic justice might have been served after the Celtics’ 104-103 victory in Game 6, tying the series at three games apiece. Derrick White’s amazing pullback at the buzzer – the ball was almost at his fingertips A tenth of a second – Monday night forced a Game 7 in Boston, extending the best-of-seven streak and the Celtics’ season.
The Heat couldn’t have been any closer to securing a spot in the NBA Finals against the Denver Nuggets. And then, in an instant, that dream was somehow far away.
“It’s almost like this,” said Vincent. “But, you know, go to Boston and win.”
Vincent, the team’s starting point guard, made it sound simple, but the series was a carnival. The Heat won the first three games to put themselves at the top of history as they attempted to clinch the No. 8 seed to advance to the NBA Finals with the 1998-99 Knicks. Now, the Celtics are bidding to become the first team to win an NBA playoff series after trailing in three games.
“It’s been a hell of a streak,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “At this point, I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’re getting there to do it.”
It’s a public confidence vote after a game of missed opportunities for the Heat. Where to start? Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo combined to go 9 of 37 from the field.
Butler, in particular, looked completely inactive for most of the game. There he was in the second quarter, handling the ball above the perimeter with a clockwork shot. But instead of driving, Butler threw a pass to Duncan Robinson, who had no choice but to pick off a runner who grazed the front of the rim from 11 feet. Seconds later, the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum made a layup at the other end.
But other plays can also haunt the Heat. For example, in the fourth quarter, Adebayo caught the rim blocking a shot that was against the rules and led to a 4-point possession for the Celtics.
As a team, the Heat shot 35.5 percent from the field. They missed hook shots and layups, jumpers and floaters. They still had a chance when Caleb Martin, who entered the starting lineup and scored 21 points, and Butler, who asserted himself late with 3 seconds left, was fouled on a 3-pointer attempt. He made all three free throws for a 1-point lead.
But it was all a prelude to the final sequence — a 3-point attempt by the Celtics’ Marcus Smart that went in and out, and White’s layup. The Heat’s Max Struss hedged on Tatum, preventing him from getting the ball, but it left an open lane to the basket for White to follow.
“I thought we had a lot of things on that play,” Spoelstra said, “and sometimes things don’t break your way. I don’t think there’s any regret in that. It’s a shame.
Butler shouldered the blame, scoring 15 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter.
“If I play well, we wouldn’t even be in this position,” he said. “And I’ll be good. That’s what makes me smile, because those guys follow my lead. So when I’m playing better, I think we’re playing better overall,” he said.
After finishing the regular season with a 44–38 record, the Heat landed in the playoffs and lost their opener to the Atlanta Hawks. The Heat trailed the Chicago Bulls by 6 points in the fourth quarter of an elimination game.
But something strange began to creep in during the heat: the greater the challenge, the better they played. Facing the top-seeded Bucks in the first round, Miami lost two rotation players, Tyler Hero and Victor Oladipo, to long-term injuries, which should have been problematic. But Butler was fantastic as the Heat went on a five-game sweep.
But that version of Butler was missing as the Heat’s three-game series lead slipped away. He passes up shots, hesitates on drives and turns the ball over. In other words, he looks tired from a long season.
Now, Miami faces its biggest test yet. Butler said he plans to decompress by playing a nightly game of spades.
“I’m not going to give up on our guys,” he said. “I don’t care what anyone says. Everything will be alright.”
Game 7 is one more chance for the No. 2 seed Celtics to make good on their promise to return to the NBA Finals and salvage their season, a year after losing to the Golden State Warriors. Tatum is inconsistent, even in victory, routinely in danger every night and going scoreless for long stretches of his season. He scored just 6 of his 31 points in the second half of Saturday’s game.
“We all know this is no time to celebrate,” Tatum said. “We haven’t accomplished anything.”
As midnight approached, Butler invited guard Kyle Lowry to his locker for a quiet chat. Vincent vacates the premises with music to his heart’s content.
At the front of the room, a monitor listed one item on the team’s schedule for Sunday was correct: a 1:30 p.m. flight to Boston.