Brian WindhorstESPN Senior Writer6 Minute Read
BOSTON — After losing for the first time in the 2023 Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday night, Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler was asked if he was concerned the Boston Celtics had seized momentum.
“No,” Butler said, unconventionally. “If anything, it will build momentum for us knowing that we have to play with a lot more energy. We’ve got to play like our backs are against the wall.”
On its face, this seems like an unusual response: How can a losing team feel momentum? How can a team up 3-1 in the series be up against the wall?
Maybe Butler, a wise veteran who thrives on playing mind games, actually has this right. If so, he might be the only one.
This matchup between the Celtics and the Heat, a series in which the No. 8 seed took a 3-0 lead, has become a bizzarro conference finals.
What should be true isn’t.
What makes sense suddenly doesn’t.
And just when you think you might have things figured out, you’re flipped on your head.
When the Celtics won Tuesday’s Game 4 116-99, it marked the fourth time in the past two postseasons they’d won a road game while facing elimination. This is an incredible achievement that speaks to resilience and poise under pressure. It’s also incredibly uncommon.
For example, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, who has played more playoff games than anyone in NBA history, has four such victories in his 20-year career — two of which happened in the magical 2016 NBA Finals.
“I think anytime you’re in a do-or-die situation, it forces you to build an awareness and perspective,” said Joe Mazzulla, who has been the Celtics coach for two of those victories (Game 6 at the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round and Tuesday’s tilt in Miami). “It’s always been there, and I think just the perspective of understanding just a week ago we had it, and so it’s just fragile during these times.”
Oh, it’s fragile. That same squad that survived two do-or-die games against the Sixers in the conference semifinals immediately blew two double-digit leads at home in Games 1 and 2 against the Heat.
The Celtics are 10-11 at home over the past two postseasons, which represents the most such home losses for a team over two years. It’s nearly impossible to win enough playoff games to even play 21 home games over two years and be under .500 at home at the same time — unless you are this group of Celtics, who often look bad when they should be good and great when they should be cooked.
Home teams that lost Game 1 of a series had won the second game 17 consecutive times — until Boston fell to Miami in Game 2 of this series.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was 13-0 in his career when leading his team in a closeout chance on their home floor in Miami — until the Celtics beat him in Game 7 of last year’s conference finals and in Game 4 this season. Once again, the trophy celebration plans were scrapped.
“You know,” Spoelstra said Tuesday night, “sometimes things don’t go exactly as planned.”
Nothing about this series has gone as planned.
The Heat have eight wins this postseason as a Las Vegas underdog — the second most on record for a single postseason. Computer forecasting models have been equally mystified. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gave the Celtics a 95% chance of winning the series. Even after the Celtics fell down 2-0, they remained the computer favorite. That finally reversed before Game 4 — only to see the Celtics win convincingly.
“As we know and everybody else knows, we don’t typically get things the easy way over here,” said Heat forward Caleb Martin, in an understatement. His team lost at home to the Atlanta Hawks in the first play-in game in April before winning the last spot in the East playoffs with a rally in the final three minutes of a do-or-die game against the Chicago Bulls.
The Celtics sometimes play with more comfort when they are behind than when they are ahead. This has been a repeated scenario over the past two postseasons. In Tuesday’s Game 4, they fell down by nine points midway through the third quarter and roared back with an 18-0 run to save their season.
After not making a field goal in the fourth quarter of the first three games of the series, Celtics star Jayson Tatum sank five in the fourth of Game 4 to hold off the Heat.
Just two weeks ago, Tatum was sitting on a 1-of-14 shooting night and was on the edge of a humiliating elimination — and he then made four 3-pointers in the final five minutes to secure yet another improbable, season-saving win.
This exercise could go on and on. These two teams with these players in this circumstance creates one big Venn diagram of strange occurrences.
So, it must be asked, what about the 150-0 all-time record for teams in series when they get up 3-0?
“We’ll be OK,” Butler said. “Let’s get back to doing what we’ve always done to get us to this point: Continually have belief in one another, knowing that we are going to win, and we will.”