MIAMI — Four weeks ago, the Miami Heat found themselves trailing the Chicago Bulls in the final Eastern Conference play-in game, just minutes away from not having a chance to play in the postseason at all.
Now, on the backs of star players Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, the Heat are headed to the second straight conference finals. Butler and Adebayo combined for 47 points on Friday night as the eighth-seeded Heat took down the New York Knicks, 96-92, to win their conference semifinals series 4-2.
“We’re one step closer to our goal,” Butler said sitting at the podium following the game. “We already knew what we were capable of from the jump, I’m talking about the beginning of the season. We got eight more to get. I always say we’re always going to be in this thing together. So proud of all of my guys for playing as hard as we did today and like I said, we got eight more.”
The Heat became just the second No. 8 seed to reach a conference finals following the 1998-99 Knicks who went on to represent the East in the NBA Finals.
Butler finished with 24 points and helped put the game away with a pair of free throws with 14.4 remaining. Adebayo had 23 points and nine rebounds and continued to respond after he called himself out for what he felt was a poor performance in Game 2, a Knicks’ win.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said it felt like Adebayo had 17 rebounds on the night with the way he played and said it was “as hard as you could play.” Butler said that’s just an everyday thing with Adebayo.
“But he grabbed every single big rebound,” Butler added. “He had some huge buckets down the stretch. Like I’ve said, all year long he’s, he’s been the anchor for us on the defensive side of the ball. But my goodness, when he’s attacking you and making shots and getting to the free-throw line on the offensive side of it, he looks unguardable.”
After averaging 35.5 points in his first six playoff games, Butler cooled down some after having to miss Game 2 against the Knicks with a right ankle sprain. In the last four games, Butler’s average dropped to 24.5 points, and the last two games were the only games he was held under 25 points in the entire playoffs.
Much of the Knicks’ game plan became focused on sending multiple defenders at Butler, but Spoelstra said Butler was making the right decisions despite possibly still being limited by the ankle.
“I’m not making any excuses for him — he’d scream at me and yell at me if I did that — but it’s clear he wasn’t physically the way he was in the Milwaukee series,” Spoelstra said. “But he still commands so much respect and attention that we just played out double teams basically in the second half.
Butler credited his teammates with being in the right spots whenever a double team was sent his way.
“If you’re going to double anybody on our team, the ball’s going to move,” Butler said. “We got guys that can shoot the ball incredibly well, attack and finish at the rim incredibly well. So I’m glad that that portion of it is over. We got to look forward to whoever that we have next, and if that’s the game plan on whoever, we going to swing that ball down again.”
The Heat await the winner of Sunday’s Game 7 between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics.
But part of Friday night’s victory was recognizing that they may not have been here at all if it wasn’t for a comeback against the Bulls four weeks ago.
At 44-38, Miami entered the play-in tournament as the No. 7 seed but dropped the opening game to the Atlanta Hawks, who became the seventh seed and went on to face the Celtics.
It was after that game that Spoelstra knew his team was going to bounce back strong.
“I knew how badly as soon as I walked into the film session the next day, I knew how badly our team wanted to keep this thing going,” Spoelstra said. “And that’s a spirit that you always hope you can cultivate in your team and it doesn’t always happen and that’s why you’re just grateful for this opportunity to represent the Eastern Conference in Eastern Conference finals.”
He added the adversity of the situation brought the team closer together, and it allowed Miami to hit its stride at the right time.
“I feel like we took the first one for granted,” Adebayo said. “I feel like we thought we were going to come in and just win. And knowing that other people are desperate enough to try and get to the playoffs, just like us, it put us in that position. The next game, we had to be better and we had to figure out how we were going to get to the playoffs.”
Once they got into the playoffs, they figured everything else out from there.
“I remember just walking away from that meeting and telling my staff with the look in their eyes and everything about that meeting, we got a chance,” Spoelstra said. “I know a lot that I don’t know, but I know when a team wants to keep a season going. And they wanted to keep the season going.”