In an Eastern Conference finals that’s been marred by key absences (Marcus Smart, Kyle Lowry, Al Horford, Rob Williams III, and now, maybe, Jimmy Butler), dramatic returns to the floor and all the unpredictability that’s lied in between, healthy stars showcasing their own brilliance somehow matters more than it already would.
For Miami, in Game 3, that was Bam Adebayo, a matchup nightmare who, at his best, can dominate all areas of a basketball game in ways both subtle and pronounced.
After he opened the series with a pair of duds, it was clear that the Heat could not advance unless their center started to influence the action with more force. “We want him more involved and I have to do a better job of that,” Heat coach Erik Spoesltra said on Saturday morning. “And I think we’ll be able to get him in places where he can be assertive and how he was all season.”
Hours later, Adebayo had what can fairly be described as the most impressive and important night of his career: 31 points on 22 shots (five more than his previous career high), 10 rebounds, six assists, four steals and one turnover. The Heat outscored Boston by a game-best 17 points with Adebayo on the floor.
“I’ve seen him play great basketball in the playoffs,” Spoelstra said when asked after the game if he’s ever seen Adebayo play better, given the stakes (on the road in the conference finals, coming off a blowout loss at home) and circumstances (Butler missed the entire second half with a knee injury).
“I really have. He’s a winning player. And you know, he really is the heart and soul of our group. You can count on him all the time. He doesn’t get caught up in all the noise and everything. He’s just out there competing. Playing winning basketball. Doing it on both ends and doing what is necessary. Tonight we needed the scoring and we needed that offensive punch early on. Then when Jimmy was out in the second half, he just stabilized us. It got a little gnarly out there and when it did, we were able to get the ball to Bam and just get something coherent.”
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The tone was set a couple minutes into the first quarter, when he came down the court and hit Horford with an in-and-out crossover that ended with a running lefty layup. It didn’t matter who was in front of him, be it Horford, Daniel Theis, Grant Williams, Smart, Jaylen Brown or whoever else found themselves having to halt his aggression.
Adebayo’s power was reminiscent of the last time Miami reached the conference finals. In 2020 against a smaller, less resistant Celtics roster, he averaged 21.8 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists, including a masterful 32-point, 14-rebound, 5-assist Game 6 that kicked the Celtics out of the bubble.
Offensively, before Game 3 of this conference finals, Adebayo hadn’t quite grabbed a playoff series by the scruff of its neck in the same way. That breakout show of production set a standard for Adebayo that, fairly or not, has allowed some criticism to dilute less spectacular games during Miami’s last two postseasons. When the Heat needed that Bam to quite possibly save their season, he did.
All night long, Adebayo was the very best version of his nearly unparalleled self. His jumper was automatic early. His rolls to the rim and activity on the offensive glass short-circuited Boston’s switch-everything scheme. He attacked, set dozens of screens, wreaked havoc on defense and, with 1:21 seconds left, delicately placed a cherry on top by pump-faking Horford into the air and then nailing a 17-foot jumper as the shot clock expired.
“I’ve seen Bam play like that a lot,” Heat guard Max Strus said. “But tonight was special.”
Adebayo finished 13 for 15 in the paint and a perfect 6 for 6 in the restricted area. It’s only one game in a back-and-forth battle of attrition, but this version of Adebayo incinerates whatever ceiling Miami previously had and, if sustained, entirely alters the calculus of this particular series.
The words “more assertive” were used to describe Bam’s game by every member of the Heat organization who spoke after it ended. This work in isolation didn’t exist earlier in the series. “Same old play calls,” Bam said about the difference between Games 1 and 2, and 3. “Just different mentality.”
Slowing Adebayo down when those shots drop while also watching him dictate dangerous dribble handoff actions from the elbows is daunting. But the Celtics bottled him up in two games already. They survived physical onslaughts put on by Giannis Antetokounmpo and tamped ungodly shotmakers like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Humbling them two games in a row isn’t easy.
“Adebayo kind of put his shoulder into whoever was guarding him, into their chest, so Rob [Williams] can’t save the day as far as that,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “Guys have to take ownership of that matchup and defend like we’re capable of.”
Every game is its own story in a playoff series. Adebayo authored Saturday night’s, and how the Celtics respond will go a long way towards deciding who prevails.
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