MIAMI — Erik Spoelstra’s eyes followed the shot as it left the hands of Jimmy Butler. The bow looked good. It was spinning perfectly. Emotions swelled in the Miami Heat coach’s chest as he instinctively deflated his legs in the final moments of Sunday’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals inside FTX Arena .
“I thought it was going to go down,” Spoelstra said. “I thought it would have been an amazing story for Jimmy to stop and hit that 3.”
“I was like, man, what is this,” Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said.
“Oh,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said, “he’s been hitting big shots all through the series.”
“Not yet,” thought Marcus Smart, who saw Butler shoot him at the end of Game 6.
Butler posed as the ball neared the rim, the nearby Heat bench rolled up for a collective leap. But Butler had played 47 minutes and 45 seconds of a 48-minute game, two days after playing 47 minutes in Boston. Maybe it was the fatigue, maybe it was the lingering pain in his knee, maybe it was the pressure, but the ball ended up hitting the front of the rim.
The story that Spoelstra dreamed of? The Heat — battered, bruised and frankly understaffed in a physical streak — had pulled off an act of magic to even make it to Sunday’s contest. Looking at the past two weeks fairly, this was a tied streak purely because of the Heat’s mix of trickery, timing and anti-inflammatories. And Miami did it again in Game 7.
Seven times the Celtics had built their lead into double digits, and seven times the Heat recovered. Had Butler’s 3-pointer dropped with 15 seconds left, the Heat would have taken a one-point lead — their first of the game.
The Heat had a batting chance, an underdog who has nothing to lose and can take a crazy risk. A perfectly timed swing could knock out the favorite.
Butler could have driven the ball to the edge and picked up the draw. He had momentum and space, having started his own fast break after grabbing a rebound. And Butler is one of the best finishers in the league around the rim, his strength and dexterity perfect for scoring in traffic.
Instead, with himself and his team tired and injured, Butler went to get the hay.
“My thought process was, ‘Go for the win,’ which I did,” said Butler, who backed up his 47 points in Game 6 with 35 in Game 7.”[I] missed a shot. But I take this hit. My teammates liked the shot I took. So I live with it.”
Butler is not a man of regrets, but the lady will sting. Moments later, the Celtics cruised to a 100-96 victory to claim their first trip to the NBA Finals in 12 years with a series against the Golden State Warriors.
This is where the other side of the story comes in. And he’s the man who came out to arrest Butler.
The Celtics were on the verge of a devastating loss, blowing out a vital streak in one of the worst ways imaginable. But if there was one player they could have chosen to be ahead of a serial Butler at that time, it was Al Horford.
Horford did everything right. He came out in front of Butler and “charged” – lingo for getting into defending against a player on a drive – and positioned himself between the Heat star and the basket.
“I didn’t know what he was going to do,” said Horford, who was playing with a heavy heart after the death of his maternal grandfather earlier in the week. “It looked like he was going to aim for the shot, but I had to make sure I stayed solid; and when he stopped for the 3, I thought to myself, let me challenge in the best way possible. He got a good look.”
Horford is the Celtics’ best defender when it comes to challenging shots like the one Butler was about to take. Horford has gone 29 more shots than any other Celtic in the series because he is always in the right place.
When Butler faced Horford in the series, he shot 27%. When Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo faced Horford in the Eastern Semifinals, he made 37%. Earlier in the game, Horford absolutely stoned the Heat’s Max Strus on a dunk attempt in a classic example of his ability even at 35.
The math behind Butler’s 3-point attempt screamed “bad shot.” Butler, not a 3-point shooter by nature, took just 19 3-pointers all season and made just six. But in this series, it was 4 of 7 of 3 open. This one felt open. For a second it was wide open.
Jimmy Butler says he lives with his decision to take a 3-pointer in the final moments of the Heat’s Game 7 loss to the Celtics.
“It was nerve-wracking,” Horford said of Butler’s shot. “He stopped and anything could have happened there.”
It was the 141st playoff game of Horford’s 15-year career and he had never made the Finals, the longest streak in NBA history. And if he had been a little slower to spin and dash to disturb Butler, maybe that streak would still be alive.
At the end of the contest, Horford tossed the game ball into the air. When the Bob Cousy Trophy was awarded to the Celtics as Eastern Champions, it went to Horford.
For all the disappointment for Butler and the Heat, the joy for Horford and his team was the balance — and the final chapter in what has already been a tough playoff run.
“This journey is not easy. We had a rough road,” Horford said. “Brooklyn, Milwaukee – the defending champions – and Miami…they took us to the brink. For our group, it’s resilience, it’s changing pages, moving on to the next thing, and we’ve got it. done all season.”