Saturday, May 27 started out as a day of major decisions in sports.
Bayern Munich, the most successful football club in Germany, edged out Borussia Dortmund for their eleventh-straight Bundesliga title in one of the most exciting final days in recent memory, and the watershed moment when Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) secured their record eleventh Ligue One title, after an underwhelming 1-1 draw with Strasbourg.
In the evening, the Miami Heat needed one more win to become the second No 8 seed to make the National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals, following in the footsteps of the New York Knicks in the shortened 1999 season. Their opponents, the Boston Celtics, trailing 2-3 in the series, were also chasing history by trying to become the first team to overcome a 3-0 deficit in the NBA play-offs. As it turned out, a dramatic buzzer-beater by Derrick White secured a 104-103 victory for the Celtics, drawing the series level and propelling the Celtics one step closer to their place in the NBA annals.
It appeared Boston had the upper hand for Game 7 last Monday (May 29) night. The Celtics were the better team all season, momentum was on their side having staved off elimination for three straight games, and they were playing at home. The atmosphere inside TD Garden before tip-off was one of a coronation, former Celtics Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo from the 2008 championship team sat courtside, and the raucous home crowd was in full voice, anticipating a positive outcome.
What happened next was on the radar of a very few — the heavy JustBet favourites went out and played (arguably) their worst game of the season. The Celtics missed their first 12 attempts from the three-point arc and this (along with the absence of their usual defensive identity), led to their demise. The Celtics managed to score just 84 points in the game — their lowest point total this season — and no one on the team was able to break 20 points. Truth be told, it was woeful shooting all night by the home team who trailed by as much as 23 points in the fourth quarter — 32-of-82 (39 per cent) from the field, which included 9-of-42 (21.4 per cent) from three-point territory.
Jayson Tatum injured his ankle on the very first play of the game and was visibly limited all night as he scored just 14 points. Jaylen Brown, though leading the team with 19 points, was woeful and he turned the ball over eight times. White made some effort to get Boston on track, scoring 13 of his 18 points in the third quarter, but it was far from enough.
The 103–84 Game 7 result for Miami could be framed as a failure by Boston, but the achievement of the South Florida team must be regarded as conversely impressive. They played one of their best games of the season, racing out to an early 17-point lead and holding the Celtics at bay for the rest of the night. The Heat were seeded No 1 last year and lost to the Celtics on their home floor in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals and they (poetically) returned the favour this year.
After one of the worst shooting nights of his career in Game 6 (5-for-21), Jimmy Butler recovered in Game 7 and scored a game-high 28 points on 12-of-28 shooting. Butler (24.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6.1 assists) was named Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the series by a one-vote margin over his teammate Caleb Martin, whose offensive efficiency in Game 7 (26 points on 11-of-16 shooting, along with 10 rebounds) was critical to Miami's victory.
Martin was outstanding all series, making 60.2 per cent of his field goal attempts, and going 21-for-41 on three-pointers, averaging 19.3 points per game. He had just one 20-point play-off game in his career prior to this series but topped that mark with three against the Celtics.
The loss marks the end of a contradictory season for the Celtics, defined by confusing inconsistencies. At times they appeared to be the best team in the league (even during these play-offs), but on the other end of the spectrum, there were moments when they looked less than special. Now, with the 19-point loss on Monday, Boston becomes the first city to lose a home Game 7 to a No 8 seed in both ice hockey and basketball in the same season.
The No 8 Florida Panthers stunned the No 1 Boston Bruins 3-4 in their first-round series on April 30, in Boston. The Bruins set the National Hockey League (NHL) record this season for the most wins in a season (65) but were unceremoniously eliminated from the play-offs. Now the Panthers are in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Vegas Golden Knights, starting tomorrow (June 3).
The Celtics were one win away from rewriting the history books, but the 3-0 summit remains unsurmountable, for at least another year. The No 8 in the East is up against the No 1 in the West and the Denver Nuggets, who have not played a game since May 22, are standing in the way of history. The lowest seed to ever win the NBA Finals was the 1995 Houston Rockets at No 6, and the Heat are looking to raise the bar (or lower it depending on the viewpoint).
The Nuggets are 2-0 against the Heat this season, but Miami has passed every test this post-season (except for the Play-In loss against the Atlanta Hawks), and now face their biggest challenge yet against a well-rested Nuggets team that made quick work of the Los Angeles Lakers (the first sweep in Nuggets' history). The Nuggets are JustBet favourites in their first Finals, in search of their own history-making maiden championship, while the Heat are seeking a fourth NBA title and their first since 2013 and, after upsetting the No.1 seeded Milwaukee Bucks, disposing of the No 5 New York Knicks, and eliminating the defending Eastern Conference champion Celtics, can anyone question their ambition.
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NBA CHAMPION 2023
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