Every time the Miami Heat win Game 1, they go on to win the series.
What’s been true for the Heat in each of their previous two playoff series should be equally concerning for a Boston Celtics team that forfeited home-court advantage with a 123-116 loss at TD Garden in the series-opener on Wednesday.
The Heat are going to walk onto your home floor, and if your team isn’t ready for a dogfight, Miami is going to beat you.
It’s what they did in their first-round stunner at Milwaukee’s FiServ Forum before eliminating the conference-favorite Bucks in five games. And it’s how the Heat advanced past the Knicks in six games in the second round, first by stealing home-court advantage with a Game 1 victory at Madison Square Garden.
There’s something almost emasculating about an underdog winning Game 1 on the road. Just ask the Celtics fans who booed their home team off the court after an embarrassing performance with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.
History favors the team that wins the series-opener. Seventy-eight percent of the teams that take a 1-0 series lead go on to win their playoff series.
Those numbers favor the Heat more than any other team in recent memory. The Heat won Game 1 as an underdog each round as a fifth seed in the 2020 NBA Playoffs on their way to the NBA Finals, where they eventually lost to LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Now, the Heat are at it again. Head coach Erik Spoelstra told a reporter “you’re getting way too ahead of yourself,” but the vision of his team’s trip to the NBA Finals is as clear as it’s been all season.
Especially if Jimmy Butler continues to play like this.
Butler put the league back on notice when he hung 56 points on the purported league-best Milwaukee Bucks defense. He played on a bad ankle and still had his way with Tom Thibodeau’s vaunted Knicks defense, and in Game 1 against the Celtics on Wednesday, he hung 35 points on 48% shooting from the field and came up with six steals, including the game-sealing interception with less than a minute left in the fourth quarter.
Butler is averaging 31.5 points per game through 11 playoff games. The greater impact, Spoelstra says, is the effect the All-Star wing has on his teammates, particularly when games begin to get shaky.
The Celtics built a 13-point first-half lead, but the Heat worked to prevent the deficit from ballooning entering halftime. They then outscored the Celtics, 46-25, in the third quarter alone.
And for every bucket Butler scored, three more came from his teammates. Bam Adebayo scored 20 points, and Gabe Vincent, Kyle Lowry, Max Struss and Caleb Martin each scored 15 apiece.
Spoelstra said it’s the belief in Butler’s abilities that brings ease to the rest of the team.
“You can’t quantify it. There’s no analytic to it. Just the feeling of stability in the locker room,” he said. “Even when you’re down nine in the first half, we played poorly, but we have to credit Boston because they made us play poorly. There’s just a settling effect that’s impossible to quantify. We’re in striking distance. Let’s just settle into our games. Jimmy’ll make a bunch of plays, Bam will make a bunch of plays and we’ll settle into our roles. But that’s just what the great players do.”
And after Wednesday night, the belief in Jayson Tatum has wavered.
No player looked more lost in the closing minutes of Game 1 than Tatum, who finished with 30 points on 9-of-17 shooting from the field and a perfect 11-of-11 from the foul line but choked the game away in the final closing possessions.
Tatum turned the ball over four times in Game 1, but three of those giveaways came in the game’s final 3:19. The Celtics’ MVP candidate forgot how to play basketball, traveling on back-to-back possessions. He disappeared from the game in the fourth quarter and only scored on a pair of free throws in the game’s final five minutes.
This is the same superstar in Tatum who buried the Philadelphia 76ers with a 51-point performance in Game 7 of the second round.
The Celtics trailed that series, 3-2, before coming back to win in seven.
If Tatum can be that special against the Heat, the Celtics will have a chance to flip the series back into their favor in an attempt to make a second consecutive NBA Finals appearance.
One thing is for certain: These Heat aren’t the 76ers. These Heat are perennial playoff hunters.
And after Game 1, the Celtics look like the hunted.