BOSTON – It was eight-plus hours before tip-off in the most important game of the season, and the Miami Heat were not at the arena, but at a fancy Equinox gym connected to their hotel.
Erik Spoelstra addressed the media not from a podium, but behind a bear-sized equipment trunk the Heat PR staff rolled from the basketball court, around the treadmills, and between the nautilus weight machines to put between him and reporters.
“I think we’re gonna get some great performances tonight,” Spoelstra predicted, before walking back to the hotel for lunch.
How could he have known?
Game 6 of the 2022 Eastern Conference finals will forever be remembered for Jimmy Butler’s 47-point detonation on a Celtics franchise that had the same thing done to it by LeBron James when he was starring for the Heat 10 years ago. The score of Friday’s game was almost an afterthought, although the 111-103 win for Miami means the Heat are on the verge of beating Boston to get to the Finals for the second time in three years, and third in the past decade.
Buried somewhere under the clutter of Butler’s 29 shots, 16 makes, four 3s, nine rebounds, eight assists, 11 free throws and 47 points are a reputation-redeeming performance from Kyle Lowry, and maybe a career-trajectory-changing night from Max Strus.
Given what those two had put forth in Games 4 and 5, both resounding losses for the Heat and duds for them, Lowry’s 18 points and 10 assists and Strus’ 13 points and three 3s were almost as remarkable as what Butler did.
“It’s not like I guaranteed anything. I just know how our guys are wired,” Spoelstra said.
What Butler accomplished might have been a little surprising, given his own struggles in the middle of this series, and the sore right knee we heard about that he continues to downplay. But this is Butler’s fourth 40-point game in the 2022 postseason. Butler was subdued postgame, deflecting praise and insisting nothing has yet been accomplished. The Heat still have to beat the Celtics in Game 7 on Sunday.
There was a light moment during his postgame comments. He was sitting next to Lowry and not saying a lot about himself. So it was Lowry’s turn.
“It’s (expletive) incredible,” Lowry said, his eyes growing wide as he realized what he’d just done behind a live mic, with the news conference being streamed. “My bad. My bad. Don’t fine me, NBA. That was a mistake, I promise.”
Butler added: “Definitely fine him. You fine me all the time. Fine him.”
Jimmy stuffed the stat sheet tonight. Legendary performance. pic.twitter.com/aQoEC6fLj7
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) May 28, 2022
Butler had shot 10 of 35 in the past three games and taken a total of six free throws. He’d looked nothing like the player who had dominated the entire 2022 postseason, to say nothing of scoring 70 points in the first two games of this series. The thought, and the look of it, was Butler was so impacted by the sore knee that kept him out of the second half of Game 3 that he couldn’t get his own shot, wasn’t comfortable on his jumper and there would be no going to the foul line.
Butler was ruthless in Game 6, perhaps never more so than his menacing drive to the rim with 2:06 left and the score tied at 99. He drew contact, converted the layup, and the free throw, and the Heat never let go of the lead.
“He’s such a humble basketball player,” Lowry said. “The work he does put in, I witness it. It’s incredible to have a guy like him next to me. I’ve played with some great players, and he’s one of the best players I’ve played with.
“To do it on this stage, Game 6, win or go home, do or die, I wouldn’t want to lace them up with any other people but this guy.”
Butler’s own assessment of his performance was absurd. He said “I think I did decent throughout the game. But everybody else …” (he went on to name some items we’ll get to shortly.
Jayson Tatum, Boston’s star who scored 30 but managed just one shot in the fourth quarter, said “You know, we could have made some of those a little bit tougher for him, but got to give him his credit, obviously. He played extremely well tonight for his team.”
Butler was contacted earlier Friday by former Heat star Dwyane Wade, who was Butler’s teammate for a year in Chicago. Wade also had a prediction. He told Butler he could do “this,” as in, get past the knee and the mid-series struggles and pull out a Game 6 stunner.
“D-Wade never hits me until his voice is really, really needed, and it was,” Butler said. “I texted him and told him I appreciate him for it. Just to let me go out there, continue to build on that legacy and make sure that we win.”
Again, what Butler did was perhaps a little surprising, but no one is sitting there shocked looking at his box score.
But Lowry’s huge night seemingly came out of nowhere. He’s been hobbled by a hamstring injury that had reduced everything he is good at. Lowry hasn’t been able to move, and it affected his ballhandling, passing, shooting, defense. He didn’t score or record a single assist in Game 5.
On Friday, he was the 2019 NBA champion Lowry, the six-time All-Star Lowry.
The Celtics jumped ahead in the fourth quarter, 97-94, on a Derrick White 3, which energized the crowd. One more Heat screw-up and it all might’ve gotten away from them. On the next possession, Lowry calmly drained a 3, tying the score with 4:20 left. The Heat never trailed again.
“I’m never going to make an excuse,” Lowry said. “I played bad before. I have an opportunity to redeem myself. I got great guys in the locker room, great guys on our team, great organization, great people in my life who support me no matter what it is, ups, downs. They always say, ‘Just do you.’ Tonight was one of the chances that I think Coach said it, a legacy game.”
Lowry and Strus were a combined 1-of-28 shooting in the previous two games, but Strus was responsible for 16 of the misses (and no buckets). Spoelstra would have been within his right to bench them both, though Lowry is such an established veteran and star that actually doing so would have been a tough task even for a coach with Spoelstra’s pedigree.
But Strus, who’s 26 years old, undrafted, and wasn’t even starting until late March? Spoelstra could have moved him back to the bench and no one would’ve thought twice. He held the line.
Maybe Draymond Green of the Warriors wishes he had held his tongue? After Golden State clinched a spot in the Finals on Thursday, Green predicted to TNT that his team would be playing the Boston Celtics next.
And he might yet be proven correct. If not for Butler and for Lowry, and for Strus and for P.J. Tucker, whose 11 points and steal on Tatum late in the fourth quarter proved huge, and for Victor Oladipo, who, filling in for Lowry after Lowry fouled out, took a charge from Jaylen Brown with 12 seconds left that essentially ended the Celtics’ hopes of a comeback … Green would already have been right.
“I thought it was funny because he knows better than anybody we still got to play the game,” Tucker said.
Green was on the Warriors team that blew a 3-1 Finals lead to Cleveland. Perhaps Green and Tucker will soon be on the court together, and can settle this then?
“It’s not finished yet,” Butler said. “We got Game 7 at the crib and we need a win.”
(Photo: Brian Babineau / NBAE via Getty Images)