Perfect Exclamation Point: Martin scores 26 in Game 7, gets MVP votes

Published 3:17 pm Monday, June 5, 2023

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By Brian Pitts

Enterprise Record

In Game 7 of the 2022 Eastern Conference finals, Caleb Martin never got off the bench in Miami’s heartbreaking 100-96 loss to Boston.

What a drastic difference a year can make.

In Game 7 of the 2023 Eastern Conference finals – on May 29, exactly a year after his zero-playing-time game with the Heat season on the line – Martin played 44 minutes, helped the Heat rout the Celtics on the road and provided the perfect exclamation point to his amazing series.

Martin wasn’t just a difference-maker in every game, he had one of those series that change lives.

In Game 1, he had 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting. In Game 2, he had 25 points on 11-16 shooting. In Game 3, he had 18 points on 7-11 shooting. In Game 4, he had 16 points on 6-9 shooting. In Game 5, he had 14 points on 5-12 shooting.

Martin came off the bench in the first five games, and his 17.6 average during that stretch marked the fifth-highest by a reserve in conference finals history.

He started the last two games, and in Game 6 he responded with 21 points on 7-13 shooting.

Then came Game 7, when Martin accelerated his rise as an improbable sensation. He scored 26 points on 11-16 shooting. He drained 4 of 6 3-pointers. He yanked down 10 rebounds. He scored the final five points of the third quarter for the Heat when the game was still close, hitting a triple before burying a turnaround jumper to put the Heat ahead by 10. Then he opened the fourth with a 3.

This came after the Heat absorbed a gut punch at the end of Game 6. This after the Celtics threatened to become the first NBA team ever to win a series after trailing three games to none.

Miami rolled 103-84 in Game 7, advanced to the NBA Finals against Denver and Martin almost won MVP of the Eastern Conference finals. Teammate Jimmy Butler got five votes; Martin got the other four. The former War Eagle was that close to taking the Larry Bird Trophy.

Joe Vardon of The Athletic wrote about why he voted for Martin: “I voted for Martin for series MVP because he was, unarguably, Miami’s most consistent player for seven games, and the four 3s he made in Game 7, especially the one at the end of the third quarter, were some of the biggest shots of the night.”

It’s hard to overstate how important Martin was to Miami taking down the Celtics. He torched Boston with 135 points. He shot 60.2 percent from the field (53 of 88), 48.9 percent from 3-point range and averaged 19.3 points – remarkable numbers when you consider he averaged 9.6 points in the regular season, when you look back and remember he was undrafted in 2019 and spent time in the G League from 2019 through 2022.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said: “If you’re a real competitor and it’s in your soul, and that’s what Caleb is. He’s a competitor. 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.”

Bam Adebayo of the Heat said: “Caleb definitely made a name for himself. After that loss (in 2022), I feel like he made it a necessary effort to really come back and be like, I’m going to be a reason why we win a series or be a reason why we win big games.”

Butler said: “That might have surprised y’all. To us, he’s a hell of a player, hell of a defender, playmaker, shot maker, 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.”

One more thing about Martin’s series against Boston: Only six players have scored more than 135 points and shot 60 percent in a conference finals in the last 40 years. They were Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shawn Kemp.

“You figure out if you’re built for these types of environments or not whenever you get into them,” Martin said. “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 definitely reflect on where I started and the journey it’s taken to get here. But I think more than anything, it’s kind of a weird feeling because I’m also understanding that as happy as I am, as grateful as I am to be here, I also understand that we have four more. The job is not done. We didn’t go through what we went through all the regular season and my personal journey to stop here.”

The Heat became just the second team to advance to the finals as a No. 8 seed. Their series against Denver was 1-1 after Miami’s upset win in Denver on Sunday. Game 3 was June 7 in Miami.