The N.B.A.’s Eastern Conference championship trophy had found its way to the visiting locker room at TD Garden on Monday night. Set atop a couple of packing trunks with metallic trim, the trophy — a sterling silver replica of a basketball — was an attraction for the Miami Heat, who had earned it the hard way with their stunning 103-84 victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the conference finals.
Players and staff members, clad in N.B.A. finals hats and T-shirts, positioned themselves next to the trophy for photographs and selfies, memorializing the team’s beautiful struggle before a late-night flight to Denver, where they will face the Nuggets for the N.B.A. championship starting Thursday.
“We never thought it would be easy,” Miami forward Bam Adebayo said.
The Heat’s resurgence as the East’s No. 8 seed has surprised everyone but them. Even when they were scuffling through the regular season, losing nearly as often as they won, Coach Erik Spoelstra stuck with his approach. Spoelstra said they were capable of improving if they continued to focus on their daily work. There was nothing especially sexy about it — meeting after frustrating losses, watching film, practicing hard.
“I think probably people can relate to this team,” Spoelstra said. “Professional sports is just kind of a reflection sometimes of life, that things don’t always go your way. The inevitable setbacks happen, and it’s how you deal with that collectively. There’s a lot of different ways that it can go: It can sap your spirit. It can take a team down, for whatever reason.
“With this group, it’s steeled us and made us closer and made us tougher.”
They will need that toughness against the top-seeded Nuggets, who secured their first trip to the N.B.A. finals by completing a sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals a week ago. The Heat are just the second eighth seed, after the 1998-99 Knicks, to reach the championship round under the current playoff format.
“Everybody’s confidence is so high,” said Heat forward Jimmy Butler, who was named the most valuable player of the series after scoring 28 points in Game 7. “We have belief that we can do something incredibly special. So we are going to hit the ground running when we get to Denver, and I like our chances.”
The Nuggets, who are rested and deep, are most likely the Heat’s toughest challenge to date. At Butler’s postgame news conference, he was asked how he and his teammates planned to slow Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets’ star center and a two-time league M.V.P. Butler said he was giving himself until midnight — it was 11:42 p.m. at the time — before he began to think about the coming series.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve got two days to figure that out.”
At this late stage, though, the Heat appear to savor absurd tests. They traveled a long road just to reach the conference finals. They had to defeat the Chicago Bulls in a play-in game to slip into the postseason. They proceeded to lose two rotation players, Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo, to injuries in their first-round series with the East’s No. 1 seed, the Milwaukee Bucks.
After Miami won the first three games of its series with Boston, Spoelstra said “a lot of pent-up stuff” had been fueling his team but declined to elaborate. His players were more forthcoming: They recalled being eliminated by the Celtics in the conference finals last season, an especially disappointing exit since the Heat were the East’s top seed and the series went seven games.
This time around, the Heat built a 3-0 series lead — and promptly lost three in a row, a demoralizing stretch that included a brutal, last-second loss in Game 6 when the Celtics’ Derrick White converted a put-back layup at the buzzer off an errant 3-pointer. The Heat could have crumbled. Instead, they dipped into their bottomless well of perseverance.
“Sometimes you have to suffer for the things that you want,” Spoelstra said, adding: “Sometimes you have to laugh at the things that make you cry.”
On Monday, before a hostile Boston crowd that was at a fever pitch during player introductions, the Heat seemed intent on drowning out the noise by relying on their defense. The Celtics missed all 10 of their 3-point attempts in the first quarter. (Making matters worse, Jayson Tatum, the Celtics’ best player, appeared limited after he sprained his left ankle on the team’s opening possession.) The Heat led by as many as 17 points before halftime.
Caleb Martin, a small forward who moved into the starting lineup for Games 6 and 7, was the Heat’s most consistent player of the series. He had 26 points in Game 7 and made 11 of his 16 shots, including four 3-pointers.
Gabe Vincent, the team’s starting point guard, played the final two games with a sprained ankle. And Duncan Robinson came off the bench to make timely 3-pointers.
“We have some hoopers,” Butler said. “We have some real-deal basketball players that can score, can defend and can pass and can win games for us.”
The Heat’s role players were the difference against the Celtics, who figured to make another deep playoff run after losing to the Golden State Warriors in the N.B.A. finals last season. But obstacles — both predictable and unforeseen — hindered them before they even convened for the preseason.
Atop the list was the sudden absence of Ime Udoka, who, as the Celtics’ first-year head coach last season, left his defense-minded imprint on the team. But in September, less than a week before training camp, the Celtics suspended him for the season for “violations of team policies.”
The entire situation cast an unwelcome shadow on the Celtics as they sought to focus on the season ahead. “It’s been hell,” Marcus Smart, the team’s starting point guard and last season’s defensive player of the year, said at the time.
Instead of going outside the organization to hire an experienced coach as Udoka’s replacement, the team prioritized continuity by temporarily promoting Joe Mazzulla, who had been an assistant on Udoka’s staff.
The Celtics named Mazzulla as their permanent head coach in February and officially severed ties with Udoka, whom the Houston Rockets hired as head coach last month.
But Boston slumped over the final weeks of the regular season, slipping to the No. 2 seed in the East behind Milwaukee, and needed six games to eliminate the Atlanta Hawks in the first round.
The pressure only mounted on Mazzulla — and on the team’s two stars, Tatum and Jaylen Brown — during the Celtics’ conference semifinal matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers. Tatum and Brown were inconsistent as the series stretched to seven games.
But after Tatum scored 51 points in a series-clinching tour de force against the 76ers, the Celtics ran into the Heat, a savvy and experienced opponent with payback in mind.
The Heat were not about to let up against the Celtics — not after a season of growth under Spoelstra, not with Butler filling his more unsung teammates with confidence, and not against an opponent that had buried Miami’s championship dream a year ago.
“Nobody is satisfied,” Butler said. “We haven’t done anything. We don’t play just to win the Eastern Conference — we play to win the whole thing.”
Lions carve up Packers behind David Montgomery’s 3 touchdowns, 121 rushing yards
Don’t look now, but the Detroit Lions look like a team that could be developing into a serious contender as the calendar changes from September to October.
The Lions hit the road on Thursday night and took the Green Bay Packers to task at Lambeau Field. With a decent amount of blue and gray in the stands, Detroit won the game 34-20. Detroit’s win marks its best start since the 2017 season when they also won their first three out of four – that time under Jim Caldwell.
Detroit didn’t start out too hot. Jared Goff threw an interception on his first drive. The Packers only managed a field goal on their first series. Goff calmed down a bit after that.
He threw a touchdown pass on his second series to Amon-Ra St. Brown. The team then followed up with a David Montgomery touchdown and then a field goal. Montgomery scored a second time in the first half and the Lions would get another field goal.
The Lions had a 27-3 at halftime. Montgomery’s running abilities in the first half piqued the interest of Pro Football Hall of Famer Barry Sanders.
“These running lanes are making me wish I could still go,” he wrote on X.
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Montgomery was the first Lions running back to score a rushing touchdown in his first three games with the team since Sanders in 1989. The Chicago Bears castoff finished with 119 rushing yards on 32 carries and 121 yards.
Goff played efficiently down the stretch. He was 19-of-28 for 210 yards, a touchdown pass and an interception. He was only sacked twice. Josh Reynolds led the team in receiving with three catches for 658 yards.
The Loins’ defense picked Packers quarterback Jordan Love off twice and sacked him five times. He tried to get a comeback going in the second half but it was too little too late.
He was 23-of-36 with 246 passing yards and a touchdown pass to Christian Watson.
The Packers only had 27 rushing yards the entire night.
Green Bay fell to 2-2 on the year.
J.D. Martinez and the Dodgers make RBI history during loss to Rockies
The Dodgers made franchise history in the first inning Thursday night.
They did little else of note after that.
In a 14-5 loss to the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field, the only silver lining was a first-inning home run from J.D. Martinez. The two-run blast not only opened the scoring, but it gave Martinez 100 RBIs on the season.
Along with Mookie Betts, Max Muncy and Freddie Freeman, the Dodgers now have four players with 100-plus RBIs this year — the most the team has had in a single season.
“It’s really impressive,” manager Dave Roberts said. “It just speaks to how talented these guys are.”
The early lead didn’t last. After a week of strong pitching during the first three games of the series, the Dodgers finally succumbed to Coors Field’s hitter-friendly reputation. Starter Ryan Yarbrough gave up one run in the bottom of the first, two more in the second — tying the score at 3-3 after a Kiké Hernández solo blast in the top half — then four in a third-inning rally that included a pair of home runs.
“It was an extremely difficult day,” said Yarbrough, the left-handed trade-deadline acquisition who will shift into a bulk-inning relief role when the playoffs begin. “When you get an early lead like that and then basically let it fall through your fingers and give it right back to them, it hits hard with you.”
Another left-hander, Caleb Ferguson, wasn’t much better, giving up four runs of his own in the bottom of the seventh.
The team’s top bullpen lefty for much of the year, Ferguson has given up eight runs in his last 4 2/3 innings.
Is it a cause of concern for the Dodgers?
“I think it’s trying not to think too much of the recency, and look at the body of work,” Roberts said. “I know he’s frustrated. So we’ll have time for those conversations. But for me, it’s just trying to find an opportunity to get him back out there and put up a zero.”
With the loss, the Dodgers (who are 98-61 and already locked in as the No. 2 seed in the National League for the postseason) will need to win at least two of their final three games against the San Francisco Giants this weekend to reach 100 wins.
For Thursday, their 100-RBI history would have to do.
While Martinez had four 100-RBI seasons before in his career, none was as unlikely as this year’s.
Last offseason, the 36-year-old signed a one-year contract with the Dodgers, hoping to rebuild his stock after a poor finish to 2022. While he has authored a resurgent season in L.A., launching 32 home runs (his most since 2019) and batting .274, Thursday was only his 110th game of the season after two stints on the injured list cost him more than a month combined.
“The analytics really don’t value the RBI as much as they used to,” Martinez said. “Before it was one of those things where you drive in 100 and you got paid. Guys used to fight tooth and nail for that to drive those runs in. Nowadays it’s more an opportunity thing than it is an approach-type thing.
“But I grew up in that era where there’s a guy on third or a guy on second, you gotta get that guy in. You have to do whatever you gotta do to get that guy in. Sometimes you might look stupid chasing a pitch or something. You might look dumb swinging at something in the dirt, but it’s part of it. I value my bat-to-ball skills with driving that guy in and that’s something I take a lot of pride in.”
Indeed, getting to the century mark required standout situational production from the six-time All-Star.
Thursday’s blast was Martinez’s 15th home run and 53rd RBI with two outs this season. He leads the majors in two-out RBIs and trails only Matt Olson in two-out homers.
Martinez is also batting .325 with runners in scoring position this year, the third-best mark on the team behind Freeman and Betts.
It makes Martinez, who is set to be the club’s everyday designated hitter in the playoffs, a key factor in the Dodgers’ October fate. His 100th RBI was not enough to lift the team to a win Thursday. But his run production could be crucial in making a deep postseason run.
“For me, I think it’s everything,” Martinez said of being able to drive in runs in the playoffs. “You have to score to win. You can get a bunch of guys on base, but if you don’t have a lot of guys to drive them in, it’s just guys on base. To me it’s a very valuable trait.”
Cubs announcers rip Braves over ‘absurd’ play stoppage for Ronald Acuña Jr. after historic moment
Atlanta Braves superstar Ronald Acuña Jr. continues to make history.
In the 10th inning of Wednesday night’s game against the Chicago Cubs, Acuña stole his 70th base of the season. Last week, the Braves outfielder hit his 40th home run of the season during a game against the Washington Nationals.
Acuña became the first player in MLB history to enter the 40-70 club.
Moments after he stole the base, Acuña grabbed the base pad from the dirt as Braves fans gave him a standing ovation. The Braves also played a short video montage on the outfield big screen.
The Chicago Cubs’ broadcasters took exception to the extended pause in the game. Announcers Jon “Boog” Sciambi and Jim Deshaies said the decision to stop the game and recognize Acuña’s accomplishment was “absurd.”
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“We’re really stopping the game to do a highlight montage?” Sciambi said during the Marquee Sports Network broadcast.
Deshaies then questioned the need to remove the base during the game.
“Can we get the base after the game? This is pretty absurd. I mean, it’s a hell of an accomplishment, but …,” Deshaies said.
Sciambi reiterated his frustrations with the video montage.
“Totally, but you can’t stop the game to run a highlight montage,” Sciambi said.
The Cubs are fighting for their postseason lives after missing the playoffs the last two seasons.
Shortly after Acuña made it safely to second base, All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies hit a walk-off single to give the Braves a second straight one-run win over the Cubs. The loss dropped Chicago to 82-76, and the team is tied with the Marlins for third place in the NL wild-card standings.
“It’s really an incredible moment,” Acuña told reporters after the game through an interpreter.
Acuña has hit 41 home runs this year. Alex Rodriguez had been the only player with 40 home runs to steal more than 46 bases in the same season. In 1998, Rodriguez had 42 home runs, 124 RBIs and 46 steals.
MLB added bigger bases this season to bring more base-running excitement to the game.
Acuña and Los Angeles Dodgers star Mookie Betts are widely considered the front-runners for NL MVP.
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