Every now and then, fans get “I can’t believe my own eyes” moments in sports. On Tuesday night, Bam Adebayo, the 23-year-old center for the Miami Heat, pulled off such a play with the opening game of the Eastern Conference finals on the line.
Jayson Tatum, the 22-year-old Boston Celtics star, was on his way to the rim late in overtime in a game that his team had mostly led. The Heat were up 2 points. Tatum, with four seconds left, rose up to do something he has done many times in his career: dunk the ball, with a basket that could tie the game, or at the very least, draw a foul. Adebayo, who like Tatum made his first All-Star game this season, met him at the rim and swatted away what appeared to be an open dunk. There was no foul; it was a clean block. And it saved the game for the Heat, who went on to win, 117-114, to draw first blood in the series.
“It’s the playoffs,” Adebayo told reporters after the game. “I had to make a great play.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra was more effusive.
“That could be a poster dunk, and a lot of people aren’t willing to make that play and put themselves out there,” Spoelstra said. “Jayson Tatum was getting to the launching pad, and he just made a big time save for us.”
Fans and journalists can often fall victim to recency bias. But Adebayo’s block could be the kind of highlight that will be played for years to come and was one of the most impactful blocks in recent memory.
The most famous recent block is LeBron James’s chasedown of Andre Iguodala, who happens to be a member of this Heat team, in Game 7 of the 2016 finals. That block came with just under two minutes left in the game, not the final seconds, and stopped a layup, not a dunk.
There is also Tayshaun Prince on the 2004 Detroit Pistons swatting away Reggie Miller’s game-tying layup with 18 seconds left in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. It’s an impressive block, but it might be harder to stop a Tatum dunk than an end-of-his career Miller layup.
“He made a great play,” Tatum said of Adebayo. “Can’t do nothing about it.”
Hakeem Olajuwon, the Houston Rockets great, blocked John Starks as he tried to shoot a 3 at the end of Game 6 of the 1994 N.B.A. finals to force a Game 7. Great play, but a center blocking a guard on a 3-pointer is just one Adebayo-sized hand below blocking a dunk.
There are other contenders: Roy Hibbert of the Indiana Pacers on Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks. Horace Grant on the Phoenix Suns’ Kevin Johnson to win the 1993 finals for the Chicago Bulls. The San Antonio Spurs’s Manu Ginóbili on James Harden’s 3-pointer in the 2017 Western Conference semifinals with the series tied at 2-2.
In all of those instances, the blocker was playing on the superior team and it was apparent they were going to win the series. The Heat needed this win. The Celtics are — on paper — the better team. In the regular season, Miami was 4½ games behind Boston in the standings. The Celtics had a plus-6.4 point differential, while the Heat were at plus-2.9. Boston had a top-five offense and defense. The Heat were tied for ninth offensively and were 11th defensively. Boston won two of three matchups with the Heat, and the Celtics may have the best player in the series in Tatum.
But the Heat keep showing that “on paper” superiority is meaningless to them. Last round, they easily dispatched Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, who had the N.B.A.’s best record and were expected to cakewalk to the finals. Every win Miami can steal puts more pressure on the Celtics. On Tuesday, Boston led by double digits in the fourth. They led by 5 points late and 4 points in overtime. And they still could not put Miami away.
Boston just escaped a grueling series with the Toronto Raptors, the reigning champions, who had a toughness similar to the Heat’s. Like Miami, Toronto was a team greater than the sum of its parts based on its effort. And now, the Celtics seem to be getting used to end-of-game miracles depriving of them of seemingly sure wins. There was Game 3 against the Raptors, when OG Anunoby hit a bonkers game-winning 3-pointer from the corner with 0.5 seconds left. There was the Game 6 double overtime thriller against the Raptors, which, like Tuesday’s game, the Celtics could not pull out despite several late leads.
One game can be chalked up to bad luck. But several is an indication of complacency. The Heat — no matter the situation — are not a complacent team, and that can make up for a talent deficiency, as the Los Angeles Clippers discovered against the Denver Nuggets in shocking fashion.
“I don’t think it’s just execution,” said Jimmy Butler, the Heat star who hit multiple baskets to give Miami the lead late in the game.
“I think we’re in really, really, really good shape, you know, mentally. Whenever you’re not tired physically, you can concentrate. You can remember plays. You can do this and you can do that. We pride ourselves on that, and I think as of late, we have been playing great basketball.”
The Celtics probably don’t have to go back to the drawing board to win this series. Gordon Hayward, who has been out for the past month with a sprained ankle, is expected to return soon. Tatum had 30 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. Marcus Smart continued his hot shooting, scoring 26 points on 18 shots. Boston even got unexpected contributions from the bench: Backup point guard Brad Wanamaker had 11 points, 6 assists and 5 steals.
But Boston had one big problem: Kemba Walker — the Celtics’ marquee acquisition last summer — had his third straight poor game. On Tuesday, he shot 6 for 19 from the field and only 1 for 9 from the perimeter. He should be feasting on the Miami backcourt, but instead he was routinely flustered by the Heat’s aggressive trapping, which extended to half-court. He often looked lost on offense.
Great players have bad games in the playoffs. It’s a testament to the Celtics that they have won or almost won their last three games, despite Walker’s struggles. But against a team like Miami — which searches out flaws and exploits them with pinpoint precision — Boston is going to need Walker to give more, especially with Hayward’s physical conditioning uncertain.
Even though Adebayo’s block was just one play, it was emblematic of the Heat’s team identity. Even when the odds are not in their favor, even when they seem outmatched — don’t be surprised when you look up at the scoreboard and see them as the victors.