BOSTON — The Miami Heat might have to clear some room in Championship Alley.
That’s the name for the path from their home court to the locker room that is filled with wall-sized memories of greatness from Miami’s past. Gary Payton’s jumper that started their 2006 Finals comeback. Blood dripping down Udonis Haslem’s face in the fourth quarter of a vital playoff game. LeBron James’ icy stare in the iconic first quarter of his 45-point masterpiece to win Game 6 in Boston in 2012. And many more.
Heat president Pat Riley occasionally takes guests down the long walk, stopping in front of the huge images above the deep red carpet to tell the backstories.
Maybe the photo from Friday night that makes it onto the wall next is of Jimmy Butler rising in front of the Boston Celtics’ bench playing his 46th minute of an elimination Game 6 that was instantly etched in the history books. Marcus Smart, the 2021-22 Defensive Player of the Year, and Derrick White, the would-be hero of a comeback, watched as Butler soared into the air. Everyone in TD Garden stood, eyes on Butler.
Two days earlier, he couldn’t jump anywhere near as high. Four days earlier, forget about it. But on this night his ailing right knee, which had started to improve the past two days after aggressive treatment and as much rest as possible, allowed it. Butler made the crushing 20-foot jumper with 43 seconds left, sealing the Heat’s 111-103 win to force a Game 7 Sunday (8:30 p.m. on ESPN).
“I don’t pay too much attention to the crowd. I want to win,” Butler said. “I want to play basketball the right way. I’ll do whatever my team, teammates need me to do.”
After aggravating his knee in Game 3 of this series — he has been battling an IT band issue throughout the playoffs — Butler was a shell of himself. He played when maybe he shouldn’t have, and it showed immediately. His burst and lift were nearly non-existent. By the middle of Game 5, the Celtics’ defense openly admitted what anyone watching could see as Boston backed off him and paid attention to others: Butler wasn’t a threat.
But just minutes into Game 6, Butler leapt into a passing lane for the first of four steals and beat everyone to the other end for the fast-break score. A few moments later, he exploded off his feet to grab a rebound in traffic. Instantly another message was apparent: Butler was back — and so were the Heat.
Butler carried Miami throughout the game, piling up 47 points with nine rebounds and eight assists. After getting to the foul line six times total as he limped through Games 3-5, he was there 11 times in Game 6. And he made them all. He even made a season-high four 3-pointers.
When it was over, he was tied for the third-most points in a road elimination game in the 75-year history of the NBA. He scored or assisted on 68 points, the most in a conference finals elimination game in history, per ESPN Stats & Information.
“Jimmy Butler is a great competitor, he really is,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You can mis-define him in a lot of different ways, but his competitive will is as high as anybody that has played this game. He put his fingerprints on this game.”
Spoelstra, now a veteran of dozens of these high stakes games (especially in Boston), was steady and confident all week. Even as the Heat wheezed through losses in Games 4 and 5, struggling to crack 80 points.
Friday morning, as the Heat went through a light workout at a health club near their hotel — and saw after a quick evaluation that Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro was going to miss a third straight game — Spoelstra was deep in his bag, knowing he’d get to embrace “a great opportunity” when he and his team “feels the most alive.”
There was a light in Spoelstra’s eyes and a confidence in his demeanor. He lives his life with incredible discipline, aided by Riley’s guidance, and coaches that way. He wears the same outfit every day and never stops doing the job regardless of position.
This steadiness amid turmoil showed in Butler and the rest of the team. Kyle Lowry showed up on the court three and a half hours before tipoff to try to loosen his ailing hamstring and then gutted his way to 18 points and 10 assists. After missing 19 consecutive 3-pointers over three games, Max Strus finally made a desperation heave in the third quarter and then made two more.
“It’s not like I guaranteed anything. I just know how our guys are wired,” Spoelstra said hours later after his team got the massive win, his mood only barely elevated. “What you hope is that brings out the best in you and a different level. Over the course of a long series like this, you’re going to get pushed, uncomfortably so. Sometimes you’re going to lose along the way.”
The Heat couldn’t afford one more loss, and it looked so likely they were headed for it. Even the waiting opponent in the Finals assumed on national television, as the Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green did Thursday, that the Celtics would advance. They still might. Miami’s win Friday night didn’t clinch the series — just another chance.
“We’ve been saying it this entire series, ‘it’s not finished yet,'” Butler said. “We got Game 7 at the crib.”