After the many ups and downs of the 2022 Eastern Conference finals, including double-digit wins and injuries to star players, the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics are facing off for Game 7 in Miami on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. ET (on ESPN and the ESPN app).
The winner will advance to play the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, with Game 1 on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ABC and the ESPN app).
Jimmy Butler helped Miami stave off elimination Friday night by pouring in 47 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists in a 111-103 Game 6 win in Boston. Now the top-seeded Heat will try to cash in on any semblance of a home-court advantage despite the Celtics going 2-1 at FTX Arena in this conference final series.
“You put yourself in this position, going up 3-2, to have two games to win one,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said Saturday. “So as much as you love to finish it on your home court, we’ve been up and down this series, and due to that, it’s where it is right now.”
Looking ahead to Game 7 on Sunday, we asked our ESPN experts to highlight a player, coach, trend or strategy that could swing the outcome and propel one of these teams into the Finals. Here are their answers:
Heat’s Spoelstra orchestrating a Game 7 chess match
After emerging from the 2020 Finals, a series he ended up losing to the Los Angeles Lakers, Erik Spoelstra assessed the strategy matchup against LeBron James.
“He was making adjustments to our adjustments to the adjustments. And not making an adjustment to the adjustment I thought about making an adjustment, but I bluffed the adjustment, and he knew I was making a bluff,” Spoelstra said then.
The Heat coach was paying James, who led the team to four Finals and two titles under Spoelstra, a compliment. But Spoelstra was also offering a glimpse into his own world.
All NBA coaches make strategy moves during playoff series, but Spoelstra is in an elite class. He’s grandmaster in the chess matches that take place over the course of seven, even when he’s just faking a maneuver.
In Game 6 on Friday, he knew the Celtics had significantly prepared for his zone defense, so in the second half he broke out sudden double teams on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown that staggered the Boston offense. It helped undercut a comeback attempt and buy the Heat time to regain control of the game.
Sunday is the sixth Game 7 Spoelstra will coach. He has won three of them, those coming in the title runs in 2012 and 2013 when James was on his side. The Heat’s institutional knowledge is often staggering, and Game 7s are another example. President Pat Riley has been involved in more than a dozen. In 1988, when Riley was coaching the Lakers to a title, he won them in three consecutive series.
The last time Spoelstra faced the Celtics in a Game 7, in 2012, he stunned Boston by morphing Chris Bosh into a 3-point shooter as part of a surprise game plan. Bosh had only made four 3-pointers in his first 40 career playoff games but made three in the second half that night as the Heat advanced to the Finals.
“We have earned the right to have this [Game 7] experience,” Spoelstra said Saturday.
Spoelstra was talking about the road win in Game 6 and the season-long grind that won the Heat the right to host. But he’s got the experience edge on Celtics’ coach Ime Udoka, coaching his first Game 7, and probably has something up his sleeve that he is ready to spring on the Celtics.
— Brian Windhorst
Second-half performance key for Celtics duo Tatum, Brown
The Celtics had clawed their way back by halftime of Game 6, trailing by just two after a slow start. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined to score 36 of Boston’s 46 points at the midway point.
But when the second half started, both Tatum and Brown disappeared.
Boston’s stars combined to take seven shots in the second half. In the fourth quarter, they each took only one.
That kind of inactivity won’t get it done in a Game 7 on the road Sunday.
“I think it’s just the flow of the game, how the game was going,” Tatum said of his second-half struggles. “Obviously, I’ve got to watch the film and things like that, but I think being out there and just the feel of the game, drawing a lot of attention, trying to find mismatches.”
This is the third time Tatum has played in an Eastern Conference final in his first five NBA seasons. It’s the fourth time in six seasons for Brown. It has been a long time, however, since they were last in a Game 7 of an East final: four years ago, when they hosted the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Tatum threw down a memorable dunk over LeBron James in that game, but it was the Cavaliers who advanced to the Finals. Earlier this week, after Boston won Game 5, Tatum was asked if it felt different this time around being up 3-2 in this series, just as Boston had been then in 2018.
“Yeah, it does,” Tatum said. “My rookie year, being up 3-2, you know, obviously different team now. I’m a lot better, J.B. is. We’re just older. And we’ve been through those tough times.”
Those tough times have prepared Tatum and Brown for this moment — the same one they went through when they went to Milwaukee and won a Game 6 to keep their season alive in the East semifinals, before coming home and winning Game 7.
Now more than ever the Celtics need their leading men to rise to the moment Sunday and not allow the Heat to take them out of the proceedings like they did in Game 6.
— Tim Bontemps
All eyes should be on Heat star Butler
Jimmy Butler versus Boston’s elite defense has been the single most important factor in this series, and it will be the thing to watch in Game 7. If Butler has another big game, Miami will likely advance — if he does not, Boston will.
Boston was the most efficient defense in the NBA this season in part because it defended drives as well as any team in the NBA. The Celtics ranked first in the league by holding drivers to just 0.93 points on average thanks in large part to their fleet of aggressive, long and talented defenders.
But that same crew was not at their best in Game 6, as Butler effectively turned pick actions into juicy driving opportunities that propelled Miami on the road.
Butler drove the ball 10 times in Game 4 and just nine times in Game 5, per Second Spectrum tracking. But in Game 6, Butler recorded 23 drives and in turn, he scored 20 points in the paint — tied for his most in any game this season — and added 11 more at the line.
— Kirk Goldsberry
– 47 Points, playoff career-high
– Scored or assisted on 68 points, the most ever when facing elimination in Conference Finals
– 4 made 3s, tied for his most in a game this season
– 20 points in the paint, tied for his most in any game this season pic.twitter.com/IL6v4gxPH2
— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) May 28, 2022
Strus stepping up could fuel Miami’s long game
It has become a simple theme for the Heat throughout some of their biggest games this postseason — when Max Strus hits shots, Miami usually finds a way to win.
In a series-clinching Game 5 win against the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, Strus delivered 15 points and hit three shots from beyond the arc. And in Games 5 and 6 wins against the Philadelphia 76ers — Strus had a combined 39 points and eight 3s that spaced the floor for the rest of his teammates. In Game 3 against the Celtics, it was 16 points, including a dagger 3-pointer late in the game that helped seal the win for Miami.
In Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, there was Strus knocking down big shots, while chipping in 13 points and three more 3s. The fact he did all that in Game 6 after coming into the game having missed all 16 of the shots he took in Game 4 and 5 made it that much sweeter for a Heat team that has developed trust in him throughout the past two years.
With Tyler Herro‘s status for Game 7 uncertain because of a groin injury, it will be up to the 26-year-old sharpshooter to rise to the occasion when the Heat need him to deliver again. Strus has shown during this playoff run that he is not afraid of the stage, and now he has the opportunity to live up to the moment.
— Nick Friedell
Celtics head coach Ime Udoka voices his thoughts on having to play Game 7 in Miami.
Vegas favors Celtics despite being on the road
The Heat played all regular season for the right to host Game 7 as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, one spot ahead of the Celtics. Las Vegas isn’t impressed. Boston still enters the game as 2.5-point favorites at Caesars Sportsbook.
This is just the third time a road team has been favored in a winner-take-all game since 1990-1991, per ESPN Stats & Information. The other two were the LA Clippers at the Houston Rockets in the 2015 conference semifinals (who also lost Game 6 at home with a chance to advance) and the Golden State Warriors at Houston in the 2018 conference finals.
The Rockets split those two games, beating the Clippers in 2015 but losing to the Warriors — who went on to win their third championship in four years — in 2018. (The Celtics were also favored over Toronto as the lower seed in Game 7 in 2020, but that game was played on a neutral site in the NBA’s bubble restart.)
It’s not terribly surprising the road Game 7 favorites have all come within the last eight postseasons. As home-court advantage has diminished in recent years, so it appears has the Game 7 edge.
Not counting 2020, home teams in Game 7 have gone 13-8 (.619) with a plus-4.1 point differential in that span. Over the previous 10 years, they were 22-9 (.710) with a plus-8.4 differential. And even that was a decline from the massive advantage in the 1990s, when home teams went 16-2 in Game 7s, outscoring their opponents by an average of 9.5 points per game.
The Celtics being favored on the road makes more sense in the context of the way they have outscored Miami over the course of this series. Boston’s plus-33 point differential through six games is seventh-largest in NBA history in favor of a lower seed in a seven-game series. Of the previous six where the road team had a plus-30 differential or better entering Game 7, they went 4-2 in the deciding game.
— Kevin Pelton