It was a game that was going to leave the Miami Heat at a loss, regardless of the outcome, with Jimmy Butler’s night done at halftime due to knee inflammation.
But that also is where the Heat drew the line, riding the aggression of center Bam Adebayo to a harrowing 109-103 victory Saturday night over the Boston Celtics at TD Garden and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals.
“It got gnarly out there,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of a wild pendulum of a game.
On the rare night when the Heat started whole, with point guard Kyle Lowry back from his hamstring strain and power forward back P.J. Tucker from a knee issue, the Heat soon had to find a way to finish in the absence of their scoring leader.
So Adebayo became their scoring leader, closing with 31 points and 10 rebounds, after scoring a combined 16 in the series’ first two games, including a key late jumper.
“He did his version of what Jimmy does in terms of do what’s necessary for the game,” Spoelstra said of Adebayo.
With Lowry providing stability in his return and Tucker aggression, the Heat rode a variety of complementary contributions on both ends, including a key late Max Strus 3-pointer, on the way to regaining homecourt advantage.
“There’s just adversity going on both sides, just constantly, and the competition is just that intense that it is creating that adversity,” Spoelstra said, with Heat guard Tyler Herro ending the game with a quad injury in the wake of a miserable 4-of-15 night from the field.
Strus added 16 points for the Heat, with Lowry closing with 11 points and six assists, and Tucker 17 points and seven rebounds.
“We just got guys grinding, gutting through,” Spoelstra said. “And this is what the playoffs is all about.”
Jaylen Brown led the Celtics with 40 points, on a night teammate Jayson Tatum shot 3 of 14.
The Heat closed with 19 steals, one shy of the NBA postseason record, as part of the Celtics’ 24 turnovers. That fueled a 33-9 advantage in points off turnovers.
“We wanted to show that we’re here and we’re going to keep fighting,” Strus said.
The series continues with Monday’s 8:30 p.m. Game 4 at TD Garden.
Five Degrees of Heat from Saturday’s game:
1. Closing time: The Heat led 39-18 at the end of the opening period, their scoring high for any quarter this postseason, pushing that lead to 26 in the second period, before taking a 62-47 lead into the intermission.
The Celtics closed within nine in the third, but the Heat advantage again was 15 going into the fourth quarter, at 87-72.
And then, suddenly, a 20-4 Celtics run trimmed the Heat lead to 93-92 with 2:40 to play.
But that’s when Strus stepped up with a 3-pointer with 2:16 to play to put the Heat up 96-92, with Adebayo following with a 17-foot jumper with 1:21 to play.
Further doubt ended when Lowry snuck in to steal a Celtics inbounds pass and feed Strus for a layup that made it 103-94 with 42.5 seconds remaining, allowing the Heat to withstand a late Brown 3-pointer.
Of his crucial 3-pointer, Strus said, “We just needed a basket. . . . In the timeout, Kyle said, ‘Let’s run a pindown for Max.’”
2. Always something: The rare night when the Heat started whole took a decided turn to the concerning when Butler was unable to make it out for the start of the second half due to recurring knee inflammation.
That had Victor Oladipo, who did not play in the first half, with the starters at the open of the third period, providing several key defensive sequences.
Butler’s night ended with eight points, three rebounds and two assists in 19:30.
“He didn’t have his normal explosive burst,” Spoelstra said of his impression of Butler in the first half, before the decision was made by the training staff at halftime to shut him down.
Butler previously missed the Heat’s Game 5 closeout victory over the Atlanta Hawks in the first round due to inflammation in the right knee.
3. Message received: At the morning shootaround, Spoelstra said of Adebayo, “We want him more involved.”
Adebayo opened 5 of 6 from the field, scoring his 10th point 5:37 into the game.
Adebayo’s 12th point moved him past Tim Hardaway for 10th on the all-time Heat playoff list and he was up to 16 points at halftime. He had 23 points going into the fourth.
“He really is the heart and soul of the group,” Spoelstra said. “Tonight we needed the scoring.”
The 31 points were one off his postseason career high, when he scored 32 in Game 6 of the 2020 Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics.
“His versatility just opens everything up for everybody,” Tucker said. “It was good to see him get going early.”
Adebayo said Thursday’s 25-point home loss provided all the motivation needed.
“In the previous game they beat us like we stole something,” Adebayo said. “That should wake anyone up.”
Adebayo’s 22 shots were a career high for any game.
“He put his head down,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said, “we didn’t match it.”
4. Lowry back: Lowry was back after missing eight of the previous 10 games due to a strained left hamstring, re-establishing his leadership with the first unit.
Mindful of the ailment, he went into the locker-room tunnel during his time out of the game.
“It’s tough trying to find a rhythm, just having the opportunity to be out there with my guys is always fun,” said Lowry, who played 29 minutes. “I feel fine. I’m out there playing.”
Lowry, 36, previously had attempted to return from the hamstring in the second round against the Philadelphia 76ers after a four-game absence, only to miss four more games.
Spoelstra stressed that the setback against the 76ers was not a setback in terms of Lowry’s rehab.
“He didn’t reinjure,” Spoelstra said. “I think that was important, so he still was able to heal. If he did reinjure it, I think he would have been out a lot longer. It’s just he still felt it, so we erred on the side of caution and taking more time.”
With Lowry back but on a minutes watch, Gabe Vincent, who had started in his place, was first off the Heat bench, splitting the 24 first-half minutes evenly with Lowry.
5. Tucker, too: Also back was Tucker, who bruised his left knee in Thursday night’s Game 2 loss to the degree that there were initial thoughts of requiring an MRI.
Tucker left Thursday night’s loss at FTX Arena after first injuring the knee in the first half and the aggravating it in the third quarter.
He then had eight points and four rebounds in Saturday night’s first half.
“I told guys tonight I didn’t know what I had,” Tucker said, “but I was going to give them anything I did have.”
Spoelstra paused when asked what it would take to keep Tucker, 37, out.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think all of us, you’re kind of on eggshells with him. You can’t ask him how he’s doing. I can’t ask a trainer, because if he sees me talking to a trainer, he barks at me and yells at me if I’m talking to the trainers. I’m allowed to talk to the trainers, that is part of my job.
“But he is a throwback by every definition of that.”