BOSTON — Ten years ago, after a historically painful Game 6 loss to the Miami Heat that cost them a championship after an incomprehensible Ray Allen shot, the battle-tested San Antonio Spurs were shell-shocked.
Victory party canceled, Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich famously took the team to an Italian restaurant and gave them wine and went player-to-player, trying to coax them through the emotions in time for Game 7. They played well but lost anyway.
Saturday night, coach Erik Spoelstra looked at the wreckage that was the Heat locker room in the wake of a similarly spirit-crushing Game 6 loss after an unbelievable Derrick White shot at the finish and quickly made a decision on what to do.
“When you have such an intimate relationship with a locker room and they have it with each other, the staff has it with them, they have it with the staff, sometimes it’s just whatever’s raw, whatever’s real at that time,” he said.
It sounds simple but Spoelstra’s read on his team — and what to do — was perfect. Confident and collected, the longtime coach was not at all interested in rehashing what had just happened.
Facing living the rest of their lives knowing they might be the first team to blow a 3-0 series lead, and perhaps having to see the White shot every spring on the all-time highlight reel, Spoelstra looked his players in the eyes and told them, essentially, it was business as usual.
As it would turn out, the Heat started winning Game 7 moments after they’d lost Game 6.
“Professional sports is just kind of a reflection sometimes of life, that things don’t always go your way,” Spoelstra said. “The inevitable setbacks happen and it’s how you deal with that collectively. There’s a lot of different ways that it can go. It can sap your spirit. It can take a team down for whatever reason. With this group, it’s steeled us and made us closer and made us tougher.
“These are lessons that hopefully we can pass along to our children, that you can develop this fortitude. And sometimes you have to suffer for the things that you want. Game 6, the only thing that we can do is sometimes you have to laugh at the things that make you cry.”
When the players got together Sunday to fly to Boston, the mood was better. They were told to pack for a week because after the expectation of a win in Boston, they would move on to face the Denver Nuggets immediately for the start of the Finals.
When they had their next film session at the team hotel, they saw they’d done a lot of positive things at the end of Game 6 that had given them the chance to win. And by Monday morning, when it was time for the Game 7 shootaround, the Heat were loose and focused, with Game 6 not even a glint in their eyes.
“We were positive. I think it was a good sign, at least for me personally, just kind of seeing the mood and just the head space guys were in after that game,” said Caleb Martin, the Heat’s unexpected series hero who closed out his first career Game 7 with 26 points and 10 rebounds.
“I truly think that we believed that we were going to come here and get a win.”
The Heat got blown out of Game 5 in Boston last week starting in the first quarter. The Celtics also used a huge early surge to easily beat the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the conference semifinals. There was no time for lingering emotions.
Miami started Monday’s game strongly, building a seven-point lead by the end of the first quarter and never letting it go. The zone defense they used to smother the Celtics at the end of Game 6 was tight and crisp. The Celtics just couldn’t score on it.
Indeed, Jayson Tatum turned his ankle in the game’s opening moments. And Boston missed some open looks. But the strategy forced the Celtics to miss its first 12 3-point attempts. By then, the Heat were galloping away from them and toward history, as the second No. 8 seed to reach the Finals.
“I’m not going to say losing three in a row is part of the Heat culture we like to talk about, because we don’t play to lose and we don’t want to lose,” said Jimmy Butler, who had 28 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists. “But we have some hoopers. We have some real-deal basketball players that can score, can defend and can pass and can win games for us.”
They also have a 52-year-old coach, now headed to his sixth Finals, who will be in the Basketball Hall of Fame himself one day.
Butler collected the Larry Bird Trophy for series MVP. Udonis Haslem, finishing his 20th season, carried the Bob Cousy Trophy for winning the conference title into the locker room. Standing on the periphery, Heat team president Pat Riley couldn’t help but smile as he took it all in.
Riley likes few things more than beating the Celtics, dating to his days as a Los Angeles Lakers player and coach. The Celtics and Heat have battled many times since he got to Miami nearly 30 years ago, including last year when the Celtics took the two trophies named for Celtics greats away from Miami after a Game 7 win in the conference finals.
“Pat feels a certain way about Boston, so I make sure everybody feels a certain way about Boston,” Spoelstra said. “That’s part of my job as the caretaker.”
He’s a little more than a caretaker. And pulling this six-week effort from his team using a mix of grit, strategy, discipline and remarkable timing is a reflection as much on Spoelstra as it was series stars Butler and Martin.
They survived near elimination in the play-in. They beat the No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks despite an injury to Tyler Herro. They halted the surging New York Knicks despite an injury to Butler. Then they broke the No. 2 seed Celtics despite negative momentum — and ignominious history — pressing down on them.
As their team 757 plane took off and turned toward the Rockies after 1 a.m. Tuesday, Spoelstra began to work on another plot for another upset. And the Heat had the same mindset they brought with them on that plane to Boston after it was so easy to count them out.
“Everybody’s confidence is so high,” Butler said. “We have belief that we can do something incredibly special. So we are going to hit the ground running when we get to Denver. And I like our chances.”