Heat thwarts Celtics’ comeback bid with Game 7 blowout to reach NBA Finals

BOSTON — The Boston Celtics did everything possible to cloak themselves in the comeback mystique of the Boston Red Sox, who famously knocked out the New York Yankees after losing the first three games of the 2004 American League Championship Series on the way to their first World Series title in 86 years.

Red Sox interviews, highlights and a “Why not us?” catchphrase blared from the TD Garden video board during Monday’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, and Celtics Coach Joe Mazzulla said his team had screened the “Four Days in October” documentary after it fell into a 3-0 hole against the Miami Heat. Three straight Boston wins, including a miraculous Game 6 buzzer-beater in Miami, set the stage for an anxious finale, and both teams seemed to realize they were competing for a Finals berth and possibly a spot in the record books.

But NBA history held strong as the Heat silenced the Boston faithful with a 103-84 victory Monday to advance to its sixth Finals under Coach Erik Spoelstra. With Miami’s win, NBA teams that have taken a 3-0 series lead are now 151-0 in best-of-seven playoff series. Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets will host the Heat in Game 1 of the Finals on Thursday night at Ball Arena.

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“We are the men in the arena with blood, sweat and dust on our faces,” Spoelstra said. “I think a lot of people can relate to this team because sometimes you have to suffer for the things you really want. … Sometimes you have to laugh at the things that make you cry. [Losing Game 6] could puncture a team’s spirit, but instead it drove us to more resolve.”

Heat star Jimmy Butler and undrafted forward Caleb Martin overwhelmed the cold-shooting Celtics, who couldn’t muster the requisite energy after their last-second Game 6 victory Saturday night in Miami. Butler finished with a game-high 28 points to go with seven rebounds and six assists, stretching Miami’s lead early in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach. Martin, making his second start of the series, added 26 points and four three-pointers, keeping Boston at bay as it tried to make a third-quarter push.

The 33-year-old Butler, who led the Heat to the 2020 NBA Finals but is still seeking his first championship, was named Eastern Conference finals MVP. Miami’s victory avenged its Game 7 loss to Boston in last year’s East finals and prevented it from ending up on the wrong side of history after the gutting Game 6 loss threatened its season.

“I have so much belief in myself and this group of guys,” Butler said. “We stayed together as a group and a team. We talked about going to get a tough one on the road. We did that. We’re not satisfied. We’re excited and happy, but we’ve got four more [wins] to go.”

Miami, which needed to play two play-in tournament games just to secure a playoff spot, will attempt to become the first No. 8 seed to win an NBA championship. It knocked off the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, the fifth-seeded New York Knicks and the second-seeded Celtics during a 12-6 run through the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The Boston crowd came primed for a Memorial Day celebration, but the night opened on an ominous note when Jayson Tatum fell to the court grasping his left ankle on the opening possession. The all-star forward shook off the pain, but the Celtics remained a step slow throughout the first quarter.

“It’s tough because it kind of impacted me the rest of the night,” Tatum said. “It swelled up and it was just frustrating that I was kind of like a shell of myself. It was tough to move. … I don’t want nobody to feel bad for me. Unfortunately, injuries are a part of this game.”

Boston missed all 10 of its three-point attempts in the opening period and sputtered to just 15 points, its lowest-scoring quarter of the series. Indeed, both teams opened as if they felt the weight of the night and were still emotionally hung over from Derrick White’s dramatic game-winner Saturday.

“I thought we played tight,” Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “When you play that way, it makes you hesitant on both ends.”

The buzz that built before tip-off, egged on by cameos from former Celtics stars Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Isaiah Thomas, settled into concerned murmurs and a boo or two when the Heat’s lead reached double digits early in the second quarter. Boston missed its first 12 three-pointers — Al Horford finally broke the cold streak two minutes into the second — as it shot 4 for 21 from deep in the first half. The Heat, powered by Butler and Martin, took a 52-41 lead into the break.

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Boston made its push midway through the third quarter as White scored eight straight points to cut Miami’s lead to eight. But Martin kept providing timely counterpunches, shaking free of the Celtics’ defense to shoot 11 for 16 from the field. The fourth-year forward’s 26 points marked a new postseason career high and his most in any game since Jan. 19, 2022.

“Caleb is a competitor,” Spoelstra said. “When you get to the higher stakes, the further you get along, the more competitors are going to reveal themselves. Game 7s aren’t for everybody — otherwise more players and teams would do it.”

Miami opened the fourth quarter with the first seven points to end Boston’s hopes, and disappointed boos rained down as Jaylen Brown offered an offensive foul and a turnover in response. The rout was on. Mazzulla pulled his starters with two minutes left, when the once-electric building was already half-empty.

Tatum finished with a quiet 14 points on 5-for-13 shooting, and Brown scored a team-high 19 points on 8-for-23 shooting. Boston, which lived and died by the three-pointer all season, finished 9 for 42 (21.4 percent) from deep, and its 84 points were its fewest of the postseason.

After the Celtics spent a week frantically digging out of their series hole, they fell right back in.

“The guys cared,” said Mazzulla, his turbulent rookie year as a coach now complete. “They gave it everything they had. They could easily have folded, and they didn’t. That’s just how they are. The difference was [the Heat] played better for longer stretches.”

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