‘In this thing together’: Surging Heat stroll into playoff rematch with rival Celtics

Familiar foes will face off in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals this week. How familiar? How’s three times in four years?

The Miami Heat – led by hobbled star Jimmy Butler – will square off against Jayson Tatum – fresh off his 51-point effort in a Game 7 victory Sunday – and the Boston Celtics. Game 1 of the best-of-seven series is Wednesday night at Boston’s TD Garden.

In last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, when the Heat had home-court advantage, Miami fell one jumpshot short of advancing to the NBA Finals in Game 7. Instead, the Celtics ran off the floor with a 100-96 win and a date with the Golden State Warriors.

But both teams certainly have chips on their shoulders heading into this iteration of an NBA “trilogy.” And both feel like they still have something to prove.

Last Friday, Butler, still bothered by a right ankle injury, and the Heat eliminated the New York Knicks, 96-92, in Game 6 of their second-round series in Miami. It was another postseason memory for Butler in a Heat uniform, but more importantly, just the halfway mark for his team.

“It means we are one step closer to our goal, which we already knew that we were capable of,” Butler said after the win. “From the jump, when you talk about from the beginning of the season, (we knew). We’ve got eight more (wins) to get, and like I always say, we’re always going to be in this thing together. … We’ve got eight more.”

Boston, which lost to Miami in the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals, does, too.

On Sunday at TD Garden, the Celtics blew out the Philadelphia 76ers, 112-88, in Game 7 of their second-round series. And as Tatum, Boston’s franchise player, headed to the bench for good in the fourth quarter of that win, the fans joined in unison for “Beat the Heat!” chants.

Boston’s TD Garden will host Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, between the Celtics and the Miami Heat, on Wednesday, and Game 2 of the best-of-seven series on Friday. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Very well coached team,” Tatum said of Miami. “They compete with the best of them, they play hard and make plays. They figure out a way to win games.”

In Joe Mazzulla’s first postseason as coach of the Celtics, he knows his club goes as Tatum goes, and has often emphasized the evolution of his best player. Especially after he posted 51 points on the Sixers.

“He’s learned how to problem solve. He can recognize matchups, coverages, he can anticipate the next coverage, see the spacing, put guys where they are and make the right play,” Mazzulla said. “And that, to me, is the evolution of players: Can they problem solve over and over again? And you know, he’s done that.”

Different faces — some in key roles — have been added to the mix for this year’s installment of the rivalry. The Celtics have Malcom Brogdon, formerly of the Indiana Pacers, to go along with Mazzulla, who took over for Ime Udoka, dismissed in the offseason after an investigation by an outside law firm uncovered multiple violations of team policies. Udoka has since been hired as coach of the Houston Rockets.

For the Heat, Kevin Love and Cody Zeller have added depth and experience to this postseason run. Both veterans signed with Miami during the All-Star break, giving coach Erik Spoelstra options off the bench.

Game 2 is Friday in Boston before the series shifts to the Kaseya Center in Miami for Games 3 and 4.

Spoelstra and the Heat have been close to a title the past four years only to fall short. From the postseason bubble in 2020, where they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, to the gut-wrenching Game 7 loss to Boston last year, the club has earned an edge, and a fire, that’s unmistakable.

Losing one of two NBA play-in games last month to the Atlanta Hawks — before waking up to ultimately qualify for the postseason, and then win two rounds — has certainly added layers to their chip.

The Miami Heat lost to the Celtics in seven games in last year’s NBA Eastern Conference Finals, but went 1-1 at Boston’s TD Garden this season, including a 120-116 overtime win on Dec. 2. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“This is all you hope for in a team. Hope the adversity brings the team together rather than take away your spirit,” Spoelstra said. “I had that feeling for the last three months of the regular season, but then it was cemented in my mind after we lost that (NBA play-in round) game.

“As soon as I walked into the film session that next day, I knew how badly we wanted to keep this thing going. That’s the spirit you always hope you can cultivate in your team and it doesn’t always happen.”

He’s right. A No. 8 seed rarely advances to the third round. Another matchup against the mighty Celtics was probably not on the league’s radar a month ago. But yet, here the Heat are again. Defying not only all the odds, but all the doubters who have fueled them to an 8-3 postseason record.

“It’s a crazy story being written. Through all of the ups and downs of this season, a lot of people counted us out, saying we weren’t going to even make it past the first round, now we are in the Eastern Conference Finals,” Miami center BAm Adebayo said. “It shows the determination and the will this team has.”

Writing allows me to express myself through stories and scripts. I have a deep passion for sports and the community.