Saturday was about what Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo thinks he is, as well as what he could be.
At the morning shootaround at TD Garden, the Adebayo conversation was about failing to break through in the voting for NBA All-Defense, relegated to the second team for the third consecutive season, yet to make the first team over his five years.
Back at the same venue eight hours later, Adebayo turned his focus to the other end of the court, closing with 31 points in the 109-103 victory that gave the Heat a 2-1 lead over the Boston Celtics in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals.
“Same old play calls,” Adebayo said of finishing one point off his career playoff high, “just different mentality.”
It was a mentality of necessity, with forward Jimmy Butler lost for Saturday night’s second half due to knee soreness.
With point guard Kyle Lowry working off rust in his first game in two weeks as he deals with a hamstring strain, and with guard Tyler Herro remaining off his game on a 4-of-15 night, scoring was at a premium for the Heat.
So Adebayo showed a premium side of his game that had yet to be exposed in the series, after scoring a combined 16 points in the opening two games at FTX Arena.
“He did his version of what Jimmy does, in terms of, ‘do what’s necessary for the game,’ ” coach Erik Spoelstra said, with the Heat taking Sunday off ahead of Monday’s 8:30 p.m. Game 4 at TD Garden. “He was extremely assertive. It happened in a lot of moments that were fully in the context of how we want to play. He was just way more assertive on the catch and those moments in between.
“And it wasn’t just the scoring. That’s what everybody is going to recognize, but he did so many things in terms of getting us organized, facilitating, playing point guard for us at times, running offense in the post through him, and then defending like he always does. one through five., against a team that presents a lot of challenges.”
Adebayo closed 15 of 22, the 22 shots the most in any game in his NBA career, 12 more than he had attempted in the series’ first two games combined. He was 7 of 10 in the second half in the absence of Butler.
Adebayo’s stat line also included 10 rebounds, six assists, four steals and a blocked shot.
“When Jimmy was out in the second half, he just stabilized us,” Spoelstra said. “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.”
Teammate Max Strus said it was “special” to see the pushback Adebayo offered.
“Just because of all the noise and all the criticism that he’s been getting, for him to step up like that was huge,” Strus said. “And we need it.
“It wasn’t just leaning back and shooting floaters. He was being physical. He was getting to the rim. He was just involved a lot more, and we need that. We need him to be involved in a lot more actions, and that’s his game. That’s how we’re going to make him better.”
With Lowry back to facilitate, and with Butler leaving, it made the focus clear.
“We made some adjustments and we did some things to figure out how to get him going,” Lowry said.
The Celtics were aware of the discourse regarding Adebayo entering the night.
“We also talked about Adebayo struggling this series, he’s going to come out extra aggressive,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “Put his head down, we didn’t match it.”
The Heat had built a season around Bam the backstop.
This time, there was an offense designed around Adebayo the aggressor.
“We knew who Miami is,” Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said. “That’s what they pride themselves on, is physicality. If we want to win this series, we’ve got to match that intensity. We’ve just got to man up. Bam was too comfortable in the paint.”