Two days after Bam Adebayo blamed himself for a Game 5 loss, he arguably played the best game of his career and sent the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals. Adebayo scored a career-high 32 points on 11-for-15 shooting against the Boston Celtics on Sunday, with 14 rebounds and five assists. Adebayo also went 10-for-11 from the free throw line in the 125-113 win.
All series, Adebayo has been a problem for Boston, with his rolls to the rim, his attacks off the dribble and his pinpoint passing. The Celtics tried three centers in Game 6, and, when Miami took a seven-point lead with four and a half minutes left, they decided to make their final push without one.
With about seven minutes left, Boston put center Daniel Theis in the game, with a one-point lead. Immediately, Adebayo took Theis off the dribble from the 3-point line and threw down a thunderous, two-hand dunk.
On the next Miami possession, Adebayo went at Theis again and hit a mid-range jumper, plus the foul. On the next one, he attacked the basket, drew a double-team and created an easy layup for Jimmy Butler with a left-handed wraparound pass. Theis fouled out trying to defend Adebayo on the possession after that.
Adebayo was unstoppable, but the Heat eliminated the Celtics with a typically balanced fashion. Butler had 22 points on 8-for-19 shooting, with eight assists. Rookie guard Tyler Herro came off the bench to score 19 points, dish seven assists and make several clutch plays. Andre Iguodala, another reserve, scored 15 points on perfect 5-for-5 shooting, including four 3s.
Boston got 26 points from Jaylen Brown on 10-for-17 shooting, and 24 points and 11 assists from Jayson Tatum. The Celtics went 2-for-14 from 3-point range in the fourth quarter, though, unable to maintain the rhythm they had for much of the game against Miami's defense.
Game 1 of the Finals is Wednesday. Here are three takeaways from Miami's win.
1. Miami didn't even need Dragic down the stretch
One telling fact: Goran Dragic, whose stellar play in the bubble has been one of the Heat's biggest storylines, went to the bench with a little less than nine minutes left and didn't come back in. Miami closed the Celtics out with Butler, Herro, Duncan Robinson, Iguodala and Adebayo on the court, a big and versatile lineup with tons of switchability, plenty of playmaking and a couple of deadly shooters.
"Adebayo deciding he's just going to drive the ball put us in a real bind with the shooters around him," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "And their physicality is something that I'm not sure we probably talked about enough. They're strong, they're physical, they're tough, and [Adebayo] in particular dominated the fourth quarter. Even the plays where he didn't score, his presence was so impactful. And that put us in a real bind with our ability to guard him."
Stevens said that the Heat are "the best team in the East and deserve to be representing the East, the way that they've played." This is not something that anybody was saying at the beginning of the season, but those who are surprised at this point have not been paying attention. The Miami team that is about to face the Lakers is vastly better than the team it was when training camp started 12 months ago. (Exactly a year ago, Butler had his introductory press conference.)
Iguodala, so crucial to this victory, still so savvy and valuable on both ends of the court, was acquired in a deadline-day trade. So was starting power forward Jae Crowder, who went cold from 3-point range against Boston but had two Iguodala-esque swipe-downs guarding Tatum in the clincher. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra doesn't call Herro a rookie anymore; the four-month hiatus functioned as his first offseason as a professional, so he made his sophomore leap a little early. Two regular-season starters -- guard Kendrick Nunn and big man Meyers Leonard -- are out of the rotation.
And then there is Adebayo. After making his All-Star appearance and finishing second in Most Improved Player voting, he has been even better in Orlando. He averaged 21.8 points on 66.3 percent true shooting in the conference finals, thanks largely to improved touch on midrange jumpers, floaters and free throws.
"He moves the needle in every single way," Spoelstra said. "You can't put an analytic to his game, and that's probably why he was overlooked in college. He competes every single possession. He's really growing into a leadership role. He's mature way beyond his years. His offensive game is just growing daily. And he wants the responsibility and he wants the accountability and he isn't afraid of putting that responsibility on his shoulders."
Six years ago, Spoelstra said, he promised Dragic that they would build a contender. It took longer than they wanted, and it happened in a way that nobody could've scripted, but it's kind of perfect that he was on the bench at the end, watching a bunch of guys Miami acquired and developed -- a superstar wing, a 20-year-old guard with chutzpah, an undrafted sniper, a versatile vet and a point-center -- make it come true.
2. Hot hot Heat
I realize how simple this sounds, but a large part of this is that Miami made its jumpers at the right time. Through five games, the Heat were shooting 30.5 percent from 3-point range in the series, and they shot a miserable 23.8 percent (and just 24.1 percent on wide-open 3s) in their two losses.
In the close-out game, Iguodala caught fire. Robinson got loose for 15 points on 5-for-7 shooting from deep, letting it fly whenever he got the ball with even a sliver of space. Miami didn't attempt many 3s -- they went 13-for-27, while Boston went 15-for-46 -- but most of the shots the offense produced were in rhythm, regardless of location.
According to Cleaning The Glass, the Heat also went 10-for-20 on short midrange shots and 5-for-10 on long 2s. That is difficult to do, and it reflects the fact that, by this point in the series, they knew exactly how they wanted to attack the Celtics' defense. For the past couple of weeks, they've tilted their offense toward putting Kemba Walker and Boston's centers in uncomfortable positions.
3. Boston's bright spots
The Celtics are going home, but they had to play at a high level to get that lead that slipped away. Defensively, they were at their best when they were applying a lot of ball pressure -- Brown and Smart both had steals that led to stealing the ball and going coast to coast -- and when Grant Williams was switching. Offensively, they looked crisp against Miami's zone for most of the night, attacking it with pick-and-rolls and dribble penetration.
The wide-open corner 3s they were getting early on had disappeared by the end, though, and when they could no longer get stops, they compounded the problem with iffy shot selection. It was not enough to look crisp for most of the night.
This is essentially how all four of Boston's losses went, and it's how it managed to score a total of 675 total points to Miami's 674 and lose the series in six games. The Heat did not stand head and shoulders above their conference-finals competition, but in crunch time, the Celtics couldn't shake them.