Jimmy Butler’s 35 points and a scorching third quarter propelled the eighth-seeded Miami Heat to a 123-116 victory over the Celtics on Wednesday in game one of the NBA Eastern Conference finals in Boston.
The Heat erased a 13-point second-quarter deficit to snatch home-court advantage from the Celtics, out-scoring Boston 46-25 in the third period to seize control.
Jayson Tatum, the 51-point hero of Boston’s game-seven victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, scored 30 points, but he coughed up two crucial turnovers in the final minutes as the Heat turned the defensive screws.
Butler added five rebounds, seven assists and six steals. Bam Adebayo scored 20 points with eight rebounds and five assists and Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin and Kyle Lowry each scored 15 points for Miami.
“We are just playing really good basketball,” Butler said. “More than anything, we are staying together through the good and through the bad.
“It is a game of runs. We can talk to one another. I think that’s what ultimately makes me smile is the fact when things are not going our way, we can look at each other eye to eye and know when somebody is messing around, and we can fix it.”
Once again Butler got off to a hot start, his 12 first-quarter points marking his seventh game of these playoffs with a double-digit first period.
But it was a back-and-forth battle, neither team leading by more than four points in a first quarter that featured 13 lead changes and ended with the Celtics up 30-28.
Tatum heated up in the second quarter as the Celtics pushed their lead to as many as 13 points before taking a 66-57 lead into the break.
Boston out-scored Miami 40-16 in the paint in the first half, Marcus Smart keeping their aggressive offense clicking with 10 first-half assists — tying his career high for a half.
However, the Heat responded with a vengeance in the third and led by 12 going into the final frame. Bedeviled by 11 first-half turnovers, the Heat had just one in the third period as they dominated every facet.
“I think even the 11 turnovers in the first half is a little bit uncharacteristic for us,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We were a little bit disjointed offensively in the first half, but also you have to credit them. They got us out of our normal stuff, even though we were able to score 57.
“And then down the stretch, Jimmy was able to just do everything we needed as a scorer or as a facilitator. He’s willing to do both.”
– ‘Did our job’ –
Boston opened the fourth on a 7-0 run and were just four back with 2:31 remaining.
Martin drilled a corner three-pointer off a pass from Butler and after Tatum was whistled for traveling on back-to-back possessions, Butler drained a three-point dagger that put Miami up by 10 with 1:03 to play.
Miami made 16 of 31 three-point attempts while the Celtics made just 10 of their 29 from beyond the arc.
Tatum didn’t attempt a basket in the fourth quarter as Miami kept him at bay.
Jaylen Brown, who scored 22 points for Boston, got a scare early in the fourth when a loose-ball scramble saw multiple players hit the court and he came up grimacing and holding his left forearm.
“I thought the first half was good, and I thought we just let go of the rope in the third quarter, lost that sense of urgency,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said.
The Celtics will try to level the best-of-seven series when they host game two on Friday, but Butler said the Heat won’t be content to leave Boston with a split of the first two games.
“We did our job tonight,” Butler said. “But we’ve got another one to get in two days.”
It’s the third time in four years that the Heat and Celtics are meeting in the conference finals.
Last year Miami were the top seeds in the East while this year the Heat shook off an injury-plagued regular season to come through the play-in and grab the eighth seed, knocking off the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the first round.
The Celtics, who edged Miami 4-3 last year, are again seeded second as they try to get back to the NBA Finals after falling in the championship series last season to the Golden State Warriors.
The series winner will face either the Denver Nuggets or Los Angeles Lakers for the title.