The Miami Heat are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2014 because Bam Adebayo saved the biggest performance of his life for the moment his team needed it most.
The All-Star big man delivered an epic postseason performance with a career-high 32 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists in 39 minutes as the Heat finished off the Boston Celtics 125-113 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
What made Adebayo’s night even more special was the fact that he carried the Heat after taking the blame for Friday’s Game 5 loss in which he struggled defensively and appeared to be favoring an aching left arm. His teammates and coaches never doubted that he would bounce back, and that’s exactly what he did in a closeout game for the ages.
“Bam is one of the great competitors already in this association,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game. “He’s going to become one of the great winners in the history just because he’s so competitive. He moves the needle in every single day. You can’t put an analytic to his game and that’s probably why he was overlooked in college. He competes every single possession. He’s really going into a leadership role. Way beyond his years. His offensive game is just growing daily. And he wants the responsibility, and he wants the accountability, and he isn’t afraid of putting that responsibility on his shoulders, and that’s what he did the other night.
“All the greats in the history of the game have done that before. It was not his fault. That was a collective effort, including the coaching staff, but he wanted to take a step forward and put it on his broad shoulders, and he backed that up tonight. He was sensational. And just from a competitive standpoint, all across the board.”
Adebayo’s performance was a fitting bookend to a series in which his block on Celtics guard Jayson Tatum saved a Game 1 win that set the tone for everything the Heat did. Every time the Heat got down and things looked bleak down the stretch, another member of their talented roster would step up and make a play. On Sunday, Adebayo repeatedly rose to the occasion, delivering on a personal challenge to himself that he had to play better.
“I let my teammates down in Game 5,” Adebayo said. “I had to realign myself with who I really want to become and I showed that tonight. You say you haven’t seen me be a scorer in the fourth before? Well, there ya go. It is just one of those things. Coaches want me to be better and they want me to do great things. That is the first time I have gone play to play to play, back to back to back, so being in that moment and embracing it and taking over as we win the conference finals is a great thing for me. At the end of the day, we have four more. Business isn’t done yet.”
That was a common refrain throughout the Heat’s postgame interviews. As happy as they were about winning the East, they didn’t want to get too excited because they know a showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals separates them from the ultimate prize. With Game 1 on Wednesday night, Adebayo and his teammates remain locked in on the fact the task isn’t complete.
“The main key, and it’s been like this for a very long time, if you want to win, you’re going to have to go through a LeBron James-led team,” Heat All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler said. “At the end of the day, that’s what it normally comes down to, and that’s what we got to focus in on. Honestly, we can’t just focus in on him because he has so many really good players around him. But you’re going to get the same test over and over again until you pass it. That test is LeBron James.”
Butler, who has had plenty of battles with James over the years dating back to when James was leading the Heat and Butler was coming into his own as a member of the Chicago Bulls, continued to make difference-making plays for the Heat as he has done throughout the bubble. In his first season in Miami, Butler has gotten the last laugh on all the people throughout the league who ever doubted that he could be the face of a championship contender.
“So much of this league is just about alignment,” Spoelstra said. “Who cares what you believe in. Who cares what your culture is. Can you acquire a group of people that are aligned in whatever that vision is, and you need your leaders to embody those qualities, whatever they may be, and Jimmy Butler embodies those qualities just like all the Heat players of our great past have done before: Alonzo Mourning, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem. He just embodies these qualities of professionalism, of work, of accountability, of being reliable, and he leads. He doesn’t have to make any apologies for who he is. We love him for who he is and what he’s all about. He impacts winning.”
As he has done over and over during the past few months, Butler was quick to point out that it was Adebayo who made the Heat go. On this night, the numbers certainly backed up Butler’s premise. Not only did Adebayo finish with a career high in points, he held the Celtics to just eight points as a primary defender, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Heat also made 22 free throws in Game 6, 10 more than the Celtics — Adebayo was 10-for-11 from the line.
“I knew he was going to be key in what we were trying to do,” Butler said of Adebayo. “You’re talking to Coach Pat [Riley], Coach Spo, they are saying what he can do. But when you actually get out there with him it’s so different because he really can do it better than anyone says that he can. I just love being around him. He’s a good dude. He cares about winning, his teammates. He’s the heart and soul of this thing, he really is. I keep saying it, but he’s going to be the reason we win a championship.”
The Heat, who came into the bubble postseason as a 5-seed, now have a chance to become one of the most unlikely championship winners in recent memory. A team many thought was at least one star away from true title contention is peaking in the midst of the strangest circumstances ever surrounding the NBA playoffs.