All Bam Adebayo needed was an opening.
“I was locked in,” Adebayo said after the Heat took Game 6, 125-113, to advance to the NBA Finals. “My family knows how I get when I play bad — especially if we lose — I put that on my shoulders.” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra insisted the whole team was responsible for the loss, but he didn’t say anything to make Adebayo feel better.
“No,” Spoelstra interrupted, wrinkling his eyebrows incredulously. “I loved it,” he laughed. That type of self-flagellation, the hallowed Heat know well, is a hallmark of greatness, because only a great player could score 13 points, grab eight rebounds, and dish eight assists in Game 5 and grade himself poorly. Adebayo wouldn’t even blame his sore wrist. It was on him.
“All the greats have done that before,” said Spoelstra “It was not his fault. It was all of us. But he wanted to put it on his broad shoulders.” Adebayo put up 32 points on 15 shots, and had 14 rebounds and five assists in Game 6 to carry the Heat to a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, which starts Wednesday.
Adebayo’s ruthless aggression has already inspired legends. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, Adebayo is trying to beat Alonzo Mourning’s weight-lifting records. In a pre-draft workout, he got mad at Heat president Pat Riley and Spoelstra for testing whether he could contain guards. He remembers — and likely will always remember — being cut from Team USA in 2019. He doesn’t like being doubted.
Adebayo lived up to the Heat’s expectations, but not his own. “I let my teammates down in Game 5,” he said. “So I just had to realign myself with who I really want to become, and I just showed that tonight. You say you haven’t seen me be a scorer in the fourth before,” he said, “so there you go.”
Adebayo had 22 points before the fourth quarter, when the Celtics did something inexplicable: They went away from a lineup that slowed him and the Heat down. In hindsight, the onslaught feels scripted, but that’s because Adebayo confirmed something that was a mere suspicion before the game: You can’t let him smell blood.
That’s exactly what the Celtics did with 6:54 left. The Celtics went on a 22-8 second-half run with Grant Williams, whose strength and lateral quickness allowed the Celtics to switch, in the game. Then Daniel Theis checked in for him, and the floodgates opened.
On the possession following the substitution, Adebayo dribbled, turned Theis sideways, led him to the basket and dunked. Then he threw him off-balance in the paint, notching a floater and drawing a foul. Then he got double-teamed on a drive, swung his arm around Kemba Walker and flipped a pass to Jimmy Butler for a layup, before Theis or Jayson Tatum could recover. Theis fouled Adebayo twice. Within 90 seconds, Theis fouled out and the Heat regained their lead.
Theis allowed Adebayo to gain enough of a head of steam to barrel past him, leaving him perpetually backtracking. Williams, instead, picked Adebayo up early. Williams bumped Adebayo before catches, pushing his chest into his base. He got wide and tailed Adebayo like a brick wall, forcing him to dribble horizontally, stripping him when he tried to turn. Smart fronted Adebayo well in the post. Jaylen Brown muscled him up on catches.
“[Adebayo] in particular dominated that fourth quarter,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after the game. “Even the plays where he didn’t score, his presence was so impactful and it put us in a bind.” Including dribble handoffs, Adebayo had a hand in 14 straight fourth-quarter points for Miami. Stevens continued: “The best thing we did — the best stretch of defense we had all night, maybe the only good stretch — was when we were switching with Grant. But that got exposed a little bit in the end there.”
I’m curious — genuinely — about what Stevens saw that made him opt with Gordon Hayward instead of Williams in the end. It’s hard to fault a coach for playing his best five players, but Hayward was missing bunnies and open threes all game, and the Celtics weren’t utilizing his on-ball playmaking skills.
Adebayo, at any rate, wants to become the kind of player that simplifies coaching equations. Stop that guy, at any and every cost. “He’s earned it,” Spoelstra said before the game. “That’s what all the great players have to go through: different schemes, different matchups, game plans against you. [The Celtics] know how important he is.” Apparently, they didn’t. Adebayo punished them for it.
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