Boston head coach Brad Stevens was gracious in defeat after the Celtics bowed to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday in Orlando (US time).
After staving off elimination in Game 5, the Celtics could not get it done for a second straight game as they faded down the stretch of Game 6. The Heat secured a 125-113 victory to advance to the NBA Finals, where they will play the Los Angeles Lakers.
"Miami deserves a lot of credit. They're super physical, super tough, very, very savvy," said Stevens.
"I think they're the best team in the East and deserve to be representing the East in the way that they have played," he added.
The Celtics looked poised to extend the series to a deciding Game 7 after taking a 96-90 lead with over nine minutes to go off a Jaylen Brown bucket.
The Heat quickly erased the deficit, however, with Tyler Herro waxing hot from the perimeter and Bam Adebayo taking charge inside. It was Adebayo who gave Miami the lead for good when he completed an and-1 with 6:16 to go for a 101-100 count.
After the game, Stevens acknowledged that Adebayo's play in the closing minutes made all the difference for the Heat.
"I thought today after we had the lead, Adebayo, and credit all of them, but Adebayo deciding he's just going to drive the ball put us in a real bind with the shooters around him," he explained.
"And their physicality is something that I'm not sure that we probably talked about it enough. They're strong, they're physical, they're tough and, him in particular, dominated that fourth quarter," he added.
Adebayo, who is just in his third season in the NBA, scored 10 of his career-high 32 points in the final quarter. He also had 14 rebounds and five assists in the game.
One of the primary beneficiaries of Adebayo's playmaking was Herro, who erupted for 11 points in the fourth quarter and finished with 19. Adebayo also assisted on Duncan Robinson's three-pointer with two minutes to go that made it a 15-point game, 119-104.
"Even the plays where he didn't score, his presence was so impactful and it put us in a real bind with the ability to guard him," Stevens said of Adebayo.
"Best thing we did, the best stretch of defense we had all night, maybe the only good stretch of defense, was when we were switching with Grant (Williams)," he added. "But that got taken and exposed a little bit as well there toward the end of it."
This marks the third time in four seasons that the Celtics have made it to the conference finals, but once again, they faltered. In 2018, they led 2-0 before losing in seven games to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This year, the Celtics ousted defending champion Toronto in the semifinals but ultimately couldn't solve the Heat, which flaunted its depth in the series. It was not just Adebayo who stepped up for Miami as Herro, Goran Dragic, and, of course, Jimmy Butler also had their chance to shine against Boston.
"I thought we did a lot of tough things, too. I thought our guys tried to play physical. I thought our guys tried to do that, but I think that ultimately it's more of a credit to them," said Stevens.
"It's nothing against our guys at all. They gave it everything they had," he added. "I think Miami has been great. We just, for whatever reason, it was really a myriad of reasons if you look at the four or five close games, we just couldn't solve them late."