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Game 7, Celtics vs. Heat: Three things to watch for that will decide who wins

2022 NBA Playoffs - Miami Heat v Boston Celtics

BOSTON, MA - MAY 23: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics plays defense on Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat during Game 4 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals on May 23, 2022 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

Game 7 with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line. It doesn’t get any bigger than this.

Historically, Miami has proven it can be up for these moments. The Heat were up for it in the bubble, when the Celtics thought they had the better team but the Heat eliminated them and advanced to the Finals. And the Heat were up for it in Game 6 a couple of days ago, when the world expected a Celtics coronation on their home court, and Jimmy Butler and the Heat ripped that away from them.

Boston, as a franchise, has risen to these moments — 17 banners are hanging in the Garden for a reason. This is where Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can join that lore.

Here are three keys to look for in Game 7 Sunday night (8:30 p.m. on ESPN).

1) Which superstar steps up: Jimmy Butler or Jayson Tatum?

The single biggest question for Game 7 is which Jimmy Butler shows up? The banged-up one who had 27 points on 40 shots across three games (3/4/5) as his knee injury clearly hampered him. Or, the 47-point, unmatched playmaking and tough shot hitting Butler who drew comparisons to vintage 2012 LeBron James with his Game 6 performance.

For all the talk in Boston about the Celtics’ mistakes in Game 6, Butler won Miami that game. He took it. But after playing that many minutes with that much load on a balky knee two days before, can he do it one more time?

On the other bench, the Celtics need Jayson Tatum to step up — he has disappeared at points this series. For example, when he made one made bucket and had four turnovers in the fourth quarter of Game 6. Then, there was the 10-point night in Game 3. If Tatum wants to be in the LeBron/Curry/Durant tier of NBA stars, this is the game where reputations are made.

Game 7s are often won by unexpected role players stepping up, not superstars, but whichever team gets more out of their superstar stands the better chance of advancing to the Finals.

2) Can Boston take care of the ball against the physical, handy, intense defense?

It’s one of the truths of this series: Miami’s halfcourt offense struggles to score against the Boston defense. Even when Butler goes off like Game 6, it’s not elite. The Heat need help in the form of Boston turnovers.

Tatum had seven in Game 6, four in the fourth quarter. Jaylen Brown had four. It’s just too many. Both teams turned the ball over 17 times in that game, but those turnovers hurt the Celtics more, it lets Kyle Lowry push the pace and start the offense before Boston gets set, and that is when the Heat are at their best.

This is not all about the Celtics being sloppy with the ball, it’s about the pressure and IQ of the Heat defense — they deflect balls, get in passing lanes and are disruptive. They force turnovers. Sometimes the Celtics deal well with that pressure, sometimes they do not. If they struggle and turn the ball over a lot in Game 7, their vacation will come a lot earlier than expected just a few days ago.

3) Which team knocks down tough, contested shots?

We could talk about health in this third slot, specifically will Tyler Herro and Robert Williams III play. And those are unquestionably important — Herro has missed the last three games with a groin injury and the Heat miss his shooting and shot creation. Williams has been playing through a sore knee and the Celtics’ defense is just better with him on the floor, but he wasn’t for the fourth quarter of Game 6. How much can Ime Udoka play his defensive anchor?

However, the real story of this series is two elite defenses and two offenses struggling to adjust and find points. This has been a throwback series of physicality and defense in a lot of ways. Clean looks have been hard to come by in this series.

In the face of that, which team hits the tough, contested shots in this game?

Butler did that last game for the Heat. Derrick White did it for the Celtics in Game 6.

It’s a cliche, but because it’s true: This is a make-or-miss league. There are no secrets in a Game 7, the adjustments have been made (Miami will pack the paint when Tatum or Brown drive and dare them to kick out and trust role players to hit the shot). It’s now about execution. It’s about who makes the tough shots under pressure.

And often in a Game 7, that’s not the stars. Some role player will have a game that makes him a legend tonight.