Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals came down to a singular moment. After the Heat erased a 13-point lead, Jimmy Butler rose up in transition over Al Horford with a chance to grab the lead with less than twenty seconds to go. His three-pointer would clank off the front of the rim and send the Celtics to The Finals.
An inch. Fate teeters on that inch. Perception changes on that inch. After a Finals run, Boston has built even further on last season and stormed through the gates of 2022-2023. Miami, on the other hand, is still scratching and clawing their way to respectability in the East and it's that scratching and clawing that the Celtics should be wary of heading into this week's two-game series that tips off tonight.
In their first regular season meeting in Miami, the Celtics were reminded just how much of a grind it is playing an Erik Spoelstra team. Yes, the lead ballooned to 14 points by the fourth quarter, but you never got the sense that the Heat were ever completely out of it. You can never count out a squad with veterans Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry at the helm.
Much has changed since that second regular season game.
The numbers are the numbers. Boston is sporting, well, the greatest offense this league has seen in three generations. The defense as a whole has been mediocre, but over the last ten games, it’s been top-10 and nearing last year’s stinginess with Robert Williams nearing a return possibly this month. Malcolm Brogdon’s addition to the bench has given the second unit an undeniable leader, but they’ve grown on their own, too. Jayson Tatum is not part of the MVP conversation; he leads it and is the head of the snake of the best team in the league. Jaylen Brown (despite his defensive lapses) is having an All-Star season. After years of questioning him as a lead point guard, Marcus Smart has clipped away some of his misgivings (poor shot selection, turnovers) and is having his most efficient season to date.
And Blake Griffin is dunking.
Butler won’t play in the first game of the home-and-home series. The Celtics on the other hand should be relatively healthy after Tatum, Brown, and Horford took off maintenance days during this homestand. Miami comes into the Garden winners of their last four games with Boston in the middle of an undefeated four-game homestand so far.
On a much broader note, this game — this season — marks a shift in the culture war between the two clubs. For years, we’ve heard all about Heat Culture and what Pat Riley has been building down in South Beach. And to their credit, they’ve again found diamonds in the rough. Tonight, we’ll see the further developments of Caleb Martin and Haywood Highsmith and yes, that’s all impressive.
But in Boston, something special is happening, too. To a man, every Celtic has talked about the unselfish nature of the locker room and how Joe Mazzulla’s stern but fair style has fostered a winning mindset around the team. For years, Miami has always been seen as the toast of the Eastern Conference. That’s changing.