Occasionally, fans “I Can’t Believe My Own Eyes” get moments in sports. On Tuesday night, Bam Adebayo, the 23-year-old center for the Miami Heat, drew such a game with the opening match of the Eastern Conference final on the line.
Jayson Tatum, the 22-year-old Boston Celtics star, was on his way to the edge late on overtime in a game that his team had mostly led. Heat rose 2 points. Tatum, with four seconds left, got up to do something he has done many times in his career: dunk the ball with a basket that could tie the game or at least draw a free kick. Adebayo, who like Tatum made his first All-Star play this season, met him at the edge and swept away what appeared to be an open can. There were no mistakes; it was a clean block. And that saved the game for the Heat, who continued to win, 1
“It’s the playoffs,” Adebayo told reporters after the match. “I had to make a good piece.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra was more exciting.
“It could be a poster can, and a lot of people are not willing to play it and sit out there,” Spoelstra said. “Jayson Tatum was about to get to the launch pad and he just put a lot of time on us.”
Fans and journalists can often fall victim to recurring bias. But Adebayo’s block could be the kind of highlight that will be played in the coming years and was one of the most impressive blocks in recent memory.
The most famous recent block is LeBron James’s chase Andre Iguodala, who happens to be a member of this Heat team, in Game 7 of the 2016 final. This block came with barely two minutes left of the game, not the last seconds, and stopped a layup, not a dunk.
There’s also Tayshaun Prince of the Detroit Pistons in 2004, swimming away Reggie Miller’s game-binding layup with 18 seconds left in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s an impressive block, but it can be harder to stop a Tatum dunk than an end to his Miller layup career.
“He made a great piece,” Tatum said of Adebayo. “Can’t do anything about it.”
Hakeem Olajuwon, the great Houston Rockets, blocked John Starks as he tried to shoot a 3 at the end of Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals to force a Game 7. Great game, but a center blocking a guard on a 3-pointer is just an Adebayo-sized hand blocking a dunk.
There are other contestants: Roy Hibbert of the Indiana Pacers on Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks. Horace Grant on Phoenix Suns’ Kevin Johnson to win the 1993 final for the Chicago Bulls. San Antonio Spurs’ Manu Ginóbili on James Harden’s 3-pointer in the semifinals of the Western Conference 2017 with the series tied at 2-2.
In all these cases, the block played on the superior team and it was clear that they were going to win the series. Heat needed this victory. The Celtics are – on paper – the better team. In the regular season, Miami was 4½ games behind Boston in the standings. The Celtics had a plus-6.4 points difference, while the Heat were at plus-2.9. Boston had a top-five offense and defense. Heat were tied for ninth offensively and were 11th defensively. Boston won two out of three matchups with the Heat, and the Celtics may have the best player in the series in Tatum.
But Heat constantly shows that “on paper” superiority is meaningless to them. Last round, they easily sent Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, who had the NBA’s best record and were expected to go to the finals. Every win that Miami can steal puts more pressure on the Celtics. On Tuesday, Boston led by two digits in the fourth. They led with 5 points late and 4 points in overtime. And they still could not put Miami away.
Boston just escaped an exhausting series with the Toronto Raptors, the reigning champions who had a toughness similar to the Heat’s. Like Miami, Toronto was a team larger than the sum of its parts based on its efforts. And now the Celtics seem to be getting used to miracles at the end of the game that deprive them of seemingly certain victories. There was Game 3 against the Raptors when OG Anunoby hit a bonkers game-winning 3-pointer from the corner with 0.5 seconds left. There was the Game 6 double overtime thriller against the Raptors, which, like Tuesday’s game, the Celtics could not pull out despite several delayed leads.
A game can be chalked up by accident. But more is an indication of complacency. The Heat – whatever the situation – are not a complacent team, and that could compensate for a lack of talent that the Los Angeles Clippers discovered against the Denver Nuggets in a shocking way.
“I don’t think it’s just execution,” said Jimmy Butler, the Heat star who hit several baskets to give Miami the lead late in the game.
“I think we’re in really, really, really good shape, you know, mentally. When you are not physically tired, you can concentrate. You can remember acting. You can do this and you can do it. We are proud of it and I think we have played good basketball too late. ”
The Celtics probably do not need to return to the drawing board to win this series. Gordon Hayward, who has been out for the past month with a sprained ankle, is expected to return soon. Tatum had 30 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. Marcus Smart continued his hot shot, scoring 26 points on 18 shots. Boston even got unexpected contributions from the bench: Backup point guard Brad Wanamaker had 11 points, 6 assists and 5 steals.
But Boston had a big problem: Kemba Walker – the Celtics’ tent purchase last summer – had his third equally bad game. On Tuesday, he shot 6 against 19 from the field and only 1 against 9 from the perimeter. He was supposed to celebrate on the Miami backcourt, but instead he was routinely disturbed by the Heat’s aggressive catch, which stretched to halfway. He often looked lost by offense.
Big players have bad games in the playoffs. It is proof to the Celtics that they have won or almost won their last three games despite Walker’s matches. But against a team like Miami – which searches for errors and exploits them with precise precision – Boston needs Walker to provide more, especially with Hayward’s physical conditioning uncertain.
Although Adebayo’s block was just a game, it was symbolic of the Heat’s team identity. Even when the odds are not in their favor, even when they seem to be surpassed – do not be surprised when you look up the scoreboard and see them as the winner.