For the sixth time in 12 seasons and the second time in three years, the Miami Heat are in the Eastern Conference finals.
With no need for a detour to a Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Seizing control in the third quarter, the Heat pushed past the 76ers 99-90 Thursday night at Wells Fargo Center to close out the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals 4-2.
“It’s not everything, but it’s something,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of completing the second step of the four rounds needed for a championship. “You do want to acknowledge the steps along the way. This is not easy.”
After twice being pummeled on the 76ers’ homecourt earlier in the series, the Heat this time did not exactly silence the Philadelphia crowd, but they did create a cascade of boos that began at the start of the third quarter and kept going from there.
With even the 76ers acknowledging they were not up to the task.
“I came to the conclusion at the end of this game that we were not good enough to beat Miami,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said.
Next up for the Heat is the winner of the East semifinal that the Milwaukee Bucks lead 3-2 against the Boston Celtics, going into Friday’s Game 6 in Milwaukee.
“This was one of the goals we’ve been working toward all year long,” said forward Jimmy Butler, who led the Heat with 32 points. “But we realize that the job’s not finished.”
For all of the 76ers’ woes, from the facial fracture that kept center Joel Embiid out for the series’ first two games to the knee injury that sidelined Philadelphia forward Danny Green early in Thursday’s game, the Heat overcame adversity of their own, winning the series’ final two games with point guard Kyle Lowry reduced to spectator by a hamstring strain.
“What this team has shown over the course of the year,” Spoelstra said, “is that you can find different solutions to win.”
Butler sustained his solid playoff play, hoisting 29 shots and also grabbing eight rebounds, with Max Strus continuing his playoff emergence, with 20 points and 11 rebounds. The Heat also got 10 points and eight rebounds from center Bam Adebayo, who provided stout defense against Embiid.
Embiid scored 20 for the 76ers, but did it on 7-of-24 shooting. Otherwise there were 20 points from Tyrese Maxey, 14 from Tobias Harris and 11 from James Harden, but little of sustained substance for Philadelphia.
“It’s been a crazy year, but it’s been a fun year,” said Heat power forward P.J. Tucker, who closed with 12 points and nine rebounds, “just because we’ve had so much adversity all year.”
Five Degrees of Heat from Thursday’s game:
1. Closing time: The Heat led 28-25 after the first quarter and 49-48 at the intermission. A 23-4 third-quarter run then pushed the lead to 16, before the 76ers closed within 74-63 going into the fourth.
Of the third quarter, the 76ers’ Maxey said, “We couldn’t get stops, and we couldn’t score.”
The 76ers later cut what was a 20-point Heat lead to 11 with 2:47 to play, before Gabe Vincent, filling in for Lowry, converted a 3-pointer with 2:21 to go.
“The challenges only get tougher from here,” Spoelstra said.
Following the game, the Heat announced individual game tickets for their Eastern Conference Finals home games go on sale to the general public Friday at 4 p.m.
There will be a four-ticket limit per household, per game.
Fans will be able to purchase home games 1, 2, 3 and 4. Home games 3 and 4 will only be played if necessary.
2. Statement made: Butler scored nine points in the game’s first 5:01, then went scoreless for the balance of the first half.
He then scored 13 points in a 19-4 Heat start to the third period. He closed the third with 14 in the quarter, 23 for the game.
“I’m here for a reason,” Butler said. “We’re going to ride this wave.”
Butler’s 17th point moved him past Mark Aguirre for 85th on the NBA all-time playoff scoring list, with his 22nd moving him past Joe Dumars for 84th.
“If he sees the light at the end of the tunnel,” Spoelstra said, “it’s going to end.”
Said Tucker, “I didn’t know how good a player he was until I got here.”
3. Subtle brilliance: It had been an irritable few days for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra when it came to questions about Adebayo’s statistics. Thursday was another night when the Heat’s center’s numbers hardly told the most substantive story.
Aggressive defensively while often in one-on-one coverage against Embiid, Adebayo was relentless with his effort.
Adebayo said the satisfaction came from helping slow Embiid.
“Just making it tough on him,” he said, “and that was the biggest emphasis on the series when he came back.”
Unlike Spoelstra’s measured approach with Adebayo, it was Embiid or bust for the 76ers, with Embiid playing all but 92 seconds through three periods. A 97-second rest followed before Embiid returned in the fourth quarter, airballing a 3-point attempt.
4. Strus, again: After an uneven start to the series, Strus followed up his 19-point effort in Game 5 with 16 in Thursday’s first half.
Strus opened 3 of 5 on 3-pointers, with the rest of the Heat 1 of 10 from beyond the arc in the first half (a Butler 3-pointer).
Strus again also hit the boards, closing with his second career playoff double-double in as many games.
As he exited the postgame interview room, Butler introduced Strus as a double-double machine.
Asked what it was like to be a double-double machine, Strus smiled and said, “It’s new to me.”
As is a trip to the Eastern Conference finals.
“It’s one of the biggest moments not only in my career, but in my life,” he said.
5. Compromised start: The 76ers lost Green for the night just 3:06 in with a knee injury.
That forced Matisse Thybulle into the game, who then quickly was called for two fouls, with Shake Milton following.
Thybulle opened the second half in place of Green, who had tormented the Heat in Philadelphia’s previous two home games in the series with his 10-of-13 3-point shooting. Green converted his lone 3-point attempt before exiting Thursday.
“Not good,” Rivers said of Green’s injury.