MIAMI – The Miami Heat have not forgotten that they fought a close battle in the National Basketball Association (NBA) Eastern Conference Finals last season, only to lose 4-3 to eventual champions Boston Celtics.
On Tuesday night, revenge was on their minds as Bam Adebayo led a fourth-quarter fightback in the absence of Jimmy Butler to help Miami edge past the pace-setting Celtics 98-95.
“They booted us in the Eastern Conference Finals last year,” said Adebayo. “I feel like a lot of guys still carry that.”
Miami were rocked by the withdrawal of Butler shortly before tip-off as they prepared to face the visiting Eastern Conference leaders (35-14) and most bookmakers’ favourites for this season’s NBA crown.
But Adebayo stepped up with a 30-point performance as the Heat sent Boston spinning to a second straight loss following Monday’s reverse to Orlando.
His haul included a crucial contribution down the stretch as Miami overturned a 10-point deficit with just over eight minutes remaining to close out a hard-fought victory.
The Celtics looked set for a morale-boosting road win as they opened up an 87-77 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
But back-to-back three-pointers from Haywood Highsmith got Miami to within four points.
Adebayo then delivered a hook shot and a dunk in quick succession to make it 87-87 and then scored the go-ahead basket to give Miami a lead they would not relinquish as they closed out the win at the FTX Arena.
“Everybody has to take a bigger responsibility, everybody’s got more added to their plate,” Adebayo said afterwards.
“This team is built for that. We’ve had guys in and out of the rotation, injured or not. Just having that willingness to win, that’s all I can ask for from my teammates.”
His performance was the sort of display that could put him into All-Star Game contention as the NBA’s mid-season break looms.
The 2.06m Miami centre, however, played down speculation that he could earn a second All-Star call-up after his maiden appearance in 2020.
“I’ll just let the chips fall where they land, man,” Adebayo told TNT television. “I’m out here hooping, enjoying this atmosphere, enjoying my team. All-Star game? I’d love to be in it, but it’s up to the coaches. But they’ve seen my body of work so far.”
This season’s All-Star teams will be drafted right before the NBA All-Star Game on Feb 19.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant drafted their respective teams 10 days ahead of last season’s All-Star Game, but the league decided to switch things up for the 2022-23 campaign.
Team captains will be picking their players on game night, building their rosters from a pool of starters and reserves in each conference.
The player with the most fan votes in the East and West will be deemed the respective team captains. TNT will announce both the captains and the starters on Thursday.
Miami’s other main scoring contributions on Tuesday came from Highsmith, with 15 points off the bench, Max Strus (13 points) and Victor Oladipo (12).
Boston’s scoring was led by Jayson Tatum with 31 points while Derrick White added 23 points.
The Celtics welcomed back Robert Williams from injury but were missing defensive stalwart Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Malcolm Brogdon. Miami improved to 27-22 with the win and are sixth in the Eastern Conference.
“It was just two good teams out there playing,” Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla said. “They made a few more plays at the end than we did.”
Elsewhere on Tuesday, Nikola Jokic returned from a two-game injury absence to lead the Denver Nuggets to a nail-biting 99-98 win over the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Centre.
Jokic drained a jump shot with 16.9 seconds remaining to give Denver a one-point lead – and victory – after a battling fightback by the hosts in the fourth quarter.
The Nuggets are top of the Western Conference on 34-14. AFP