Eventually, some team is going to break the streak.
In the history of the NBA, when teams take a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven playoff series, the likelihood of having a shot at winning the series is about as improbable as correctly choosing all six numbers in the lottery. It’s a 1 in 13,983,816 chance of winning.
The 2023 Boston Celtics looked at those odds and said, “So, you’re saying there’s a chance.”
Boston won the equivalent of nailing five of the six numbers in the Mega Millions jackpot and came within 48 minutes of pulling off a playoff comeback for the ages. The Celtics became the first NBA team since 2003 to dig out of an 0-3 hole and force a Game 7. It wasn’t just any series. It was the Eastern Conference finals.
However, like the previous 150 teams that tried to break the cycle, Boston came up short as it got destroyed by the Miami Heat 103-84 in Game 7 at TD Garden Arena.
It was a roller-coaster ride for the Celtics. In a matter of seven days, they went from being massive underachievers to a team on the brink of returning to the NBA Finals only to have it snatched away in one swoop after a shockingly poor performance in front of their loyal fans.
“We failed. I failed. We let the whole city down,” Celtics All-NBA forward Jaylen Brown said during his postgame media availability.
When the Heat took a 3-0 series lead in the conference finals, basketball fans and media pundits were tossing all sorts of narratives around the Celtics and none of them were good.
Talking heads were destroying first-year Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla for being too green and not meeting the moment. Brown’s name was being tossed around in trade scenarios, and the old ghosts that haunted superstar forward Jayson Tatum during last year’s NBA Finals seem to have popped up again.
Seven days later, Mazzulla’s job was no longer in danger. Brown could be in line for a lucrative contract extension and Tatum rediscovered his MVP form.
Once the Celtics decided to step on the gas, it became a series. It shouldn’t come as a surprise the Celtics beat the Heat in seven games. The Celtics finished with the second-best record in the regular season and were one of the betting favorites to reach the NBA Finals. The big surprise was how Boston found itself down 3-0 to an eighth-seeded Miami squad that barely made it out of the play-in tournament.
It’s unfortunate that the Miami Heat, a proud franchise with championship pedigree, found itself on the edge of a historic collapse. A loss to the Celtics are being up 3-0 in the series would have been a permanent stain on the franchise. It would have been a stain on Erik Spoelstra’s impressive coaching résumé, and it would have been a huge stain on the résumés of Miami two superstars — Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.
The Heat wouldn’t even be in the conference finals without Butler and Adebayo. They are the heart and soul of a Miami squad that entered the postseason as massive underdogs. The Heat earned the eighth and final spot in the East playoffs by beating the Chicago Bulls in the play-in tournament. The Heat then pulled off an improbable upset in the first round after knocking off the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in five games. That upset now feels like an eternity.
Butler and Adebayo faded on the back end of the Boston series, as both looked fatigued.
Butler was in prime Playoff Jimmy form in the first two games of the series, scoring 35 and 27 points and playing lockdown defense on Tatum and Brown. But since then, Butler has struggled to find his shooting stroke. He scored 16 points in Miami’s Game 3 win at home, and things got progressively worse as the series extended. He was 9-for-21 from the field in a Game 4 loss. He took only 10 shots and finished with 14 points in a Game 5 loss. He was 5-for-21 in a Game 6 loss.
Adebayo also got off to great start in the first two games in Boston, taking full advantage of single coverage and doing plenty of damage in the paint (42 points and 25 rebounds). But since then, he has gone ice cold from field (13, 10, 16, 11 points) and hasn’t been as dominant on the glass. In Game 6, Bam was 4-for-16 from the field and couldn’t secure the pivotal rebound that led to Derrick White’s game-winning tip-in as time expired for a stunning 104-103 win.
The shooting struggles for Bam and Butler spilled over into Game 7, but both summoned enough strength and energy to impact the game on both ends and lead the Heat to a win. Miami became just the sixth team in 28 tries to win at the Garden in a Game 7. It was pure heart and determination, which embodies the Heat culture.
There were three key reasons why Miami knocked off Boston and advanced to the franchise’s seventh NBA Finals: Spoeltra’s coaching maneuvers, Heat role players stepping up, and Tatum injuring his left ankle in Game 7.
Spoelstra made all the proper adjustments throughout the series and thoroughly outcoached the rookie Mazzulla. Each time Mazzulla made a move, Spo had a counter. Mazzulla — who at 34 is the NBA’s youngest coach — and his staff couldn’t solve the Heat’s puzzling zone defense. Instead of attack the seams of the zone, Boston settled for contested 3-point shots. Over their final two games of the series, the Celtics shot a combined 16-for-77 from 3, including an abysmal 9-for-42 in Game 7.
Mazzulla’s big adjustment in the series was inserting White into the starting lineup to give the Celtics another shooter and ball handler. Spo countered that move by dropping 34-year-old Kevin Love out of the rotation and sliding super-sub Caleb Martin into the starting lineup. Spo wasn’t only beating Mazzulla with X’s and O’s, but he also was winning the motivational game. Moments after the Heat’s crushing defeat in Game 6, Spoelstra went on the podium and declared: “We wish we could tip this thing off right now. Right now! We want to tip this thing off and let’s play another 48 minutes. But we’ll wait another 48 hours and do this thing in Boston.”
Miami certainly did its thing in Boston in Game 7, and it was the Heat role players who got it started. Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, and Duncan Robinson played outstanding basketball in Game 7, but Martin absolutely played out of his mind. Martin, who came within one vote of winning the conference finals MVP trophy, was sensational in Game 7, scoring 26 points in 45 minutes and making 11 of his 16 shots from the field, including 4-for-6 from 3-point range.
“If you’re a real competitor, it’s in your soul, and that’s what Caleb is. He’s a competitor,” Spoelstra said about Martin, who averaged 19.3 points while shooting 60% from the field and 49% from 3-point range in the conference finals. Martin has never topped 9.6 points per game prior to this postseason and is a career 36% 3-point shooter.
The final big nail on the Boston coffin was Tatum’s ankle injury. He twisted his left ankle 26 seconds into Game 7 and was never the same. He injured it on the first play of the game when he collided with Vincent near the basket and landed awkwardly on Vincent’s foot. Tatum tried to play through the sprain, but his mobility was compromised and the limp got progressively worse as the game wore on. Tatum finished with 14 points on 5-for-13 shooting from the field, easily his worst game of the series and possibly the worst game of his young playoff career.
“It swelled up and it was just frustrating that I was kind of like a shell of myself,” said Tatum, who had a noticeable limp as he addressed the media. “It was tough to move. Just frustrating. Especially it happening on the first play.”
Tatum had averaged a series-high 27.2 points through the first six games.
Overcoming a 3-0 deficit in the postseason is extremely rare in major professional team sports. It has been done four times in the NHL (1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, 1975 New York Islanders, 2010 Philadelphia Flyers, and 2014 Los Angeles Kings), and it’s only been done once in MLB (2004 Boston Red Sox).
The NBA remains the only major sports league not to experience it, but it’s getting close.