2023 NBA Playoffs

Why Caleb Martin was the real MVP for Heat in series win vs. Celtics

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The 2023 Eastern Conference Finals should be remembered as the "Caleb Martin Series."

The undrafted forward, who didn't play a single second in last season's conference finals Game 7 between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics, was the best player on the floor in Monday night's Game 7 rematch at TD Garden.

Martin scored 26 points, tied for the team lead with 10 rebounds, and also added three assists and one steal while playing 45 of 48 minutes. He shot 11-for-16 from the field, including a 4-for-6 rate from 3-point range. 

The Heat led nearly the entire night and punched their ticket to the NBA Finals with a 103-84 victory, avenging their Game 7 loss to the Celtics on the exact same day (May 29) a year ago in Miami.

Martin averaged 9.6 points per game during the regular season. He doubled that production in the conference finals by averaging 19.3 points against the Celtics. He shot an astounding 60.2 percent from the field and a scorching 48.9 percent from 3-point territory.

Martin scored 20-plus points four times during the regular season, and only once since Nov. 27. He hit the 20-point mark three times in this series. Martin's 22 3-point shots made were four more than Celtics stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown hit combined. 

"A ton of credit to the organization and getting me ready for these moments," Martin said after Game 7. "I do a lot of prep with my coaches and my trainer to get me ready for these moments. It's super-high-level competition. You can't hide it. You figure out if you're built for these type of environments or not whenever you get into them. I feel like I've just been continuously prepping and getting ready for these moments, and when these moments come, I feel like I'm ready for them.

"I feel like I'm built for these types of moments. I'm just going to continue to try to get better and feed off guys like Jimmy (Butler) and Bam (Adebayo). They lead the way, and we are just trying to follow."

Martin certainly looked built for high-pressure moments Monday night. 

After trailing by as much as 17, the Celtics cut the Heat lead to eight with 8:11 left in the third quarter. Martin scored the next two baskets for the Heat to build the lead back up to 12 at 63-51. The C's trimmed the Heat lead to seven with 30.1 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Martin responded again with five quick points and Miami went into the fourth quarter leading 76-66. The Heat's first possession of the fourth quarter resulted in a Martin 3-pointer, and from there it was pretty much smooth sailing for Miami.

The Heat came into the series with less talent overall and fewer reliable scorers than the Celtics. For Miami to pull off an upset, it needed a role player (or two) to step up. Max Strus, Duncan Robinson and Gabe Vincent all had stretches of excellent play throughout the series, but none of them were as consistent as Martin. He never scored below 14 points and he shot below 50 percent in only one of the seven games.

 "You get to the higher stakes, the further you get along, the more competitors are going to reveal themselves," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Game 7s, or get to the Conference Finals, it's not for everybody in this association. Otherwise more players, more teams would do it. You have to be wired a little bit differently, and Caleb is. He's pure. He competes on both ends. Lays it all out there for everybody to see. He's accepted different roles.

"But we needed him to be more of a player. With Tyler (Herro) and (Victor Oladipo) out, we've needed more offense. Quite frankly, we've needed more guys like Gabe and Caleb to show how much they have improved with their player development. But yeah, he has so much respect in that locker room just because of how hard he competes. It's like his last breath on every single possession, and I love the guy for that."

Fans who might not have known much about Martin definitely do now, especially in Boston. But to the Heat players, Martin's performance was not much of a surprise. 

"That might have surprised y'all," Heat star Jimmy Butler told reporters after Game 7. "To the untrained eye, he just looks like he's an undrafted guy who has been in the G League, who has started with Charlotte and now he's here. Started on a two-way contract. That's what it looks like to y'all. To us, he's a hell of a player, hell of a defender, playmaker, shotmaker, all of the above.

"Everybody has seen Caleb work on those shots day in, day out. It doesn't surprise us. We have seen it every single day. I'm so proud and happy for him. I think he's going to be even better in the next round, and I don't think he's going to be a surprise to anybody any longer."

Martin did not win the Larry Bird Trophy given to the MVP of the Eastern Conference Finals, which was absurd. There were nine voters, and five of them chose Butler while the other four selected Martin. Butler might have been the most outstanding player of the series, but there's no question Martin was the most valuable. 

Martin's contributions offensively were absolutely pivotal to the Heat beating the Celtics, and without him, Miami is on vacation instead of heading to Denver. If the Heat are going to pull off one more surprising upset and beat the Denver Nuggets for the Larry O'Brien Trophy, they'll need another excellent series from Martin. At this point, it wouldn't be surprising if he rose to the challenge.

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