In the 2022 version of the Game 7 between the Heat and Celtics, Caleb Martin didn’t play a single second. Due to a combination of injury and inexperience, Martin could only watch as Jimmy Butler’s potential go-ahead three bounced off the rim late in the fourth quarter. In total, Martin averaged only 15.5 minutes per night in his six appearances during last year’s conference finals, many of which came in a Game 5 blowout.
In Monday’s Game 7, one year to the day of the previous one, Martin will not only be a starter for the Heat, he is essential to Miami’s chances of advancing to the NBA Finals for the second time in four years.
“It was definitely frustrating,” Martin, 27, says of not playing as much in the previous Heat-Celtics playoff matchup. “I just wanted to help my team win. But that’s how it goes, man. That’s leading up to moments like this, so when I get my chance, I’m fully ready.”
Martin hasn’t simply been ready, he’s been a revelation. So far in the postseason, he’s fourth in minutes and third in scoring for the surprise Heat, who have pushed Boston to the limit as an eighth seed. Martin, standing a slender 6’5” while mostly playing power forward, has thrived in his role as a scorer and defender. In the conference finals, he’s averaging 18.2 points in 34.2 minutes a game. And he’s been incredibly efficient for good measure. Over the course of the playoffs, Martin is shooting 55.3% from the field—including a blistering 42.2% from three on 4.9 attempts a night. And he’s doing all of this while picking up players such as Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown defensively—sometimes individually, sometimes at the top of the Heat’s zone.
“That he's taken on a lot of different roles, and he's taken on roles that you typically don't want to take on if you're coming into this league,” Erik Spoelstra said ahead of Game 4 on what’s impressed him the most about Martin during this run. “Doing all the little things, the dirty work and defending.
“Then starting for the majority of this season, and then not having any kind of issue coming off the bench and finding a way to be really impactful in both those roles. Those kind of guys are hard to find.”
Much like the team he plays for itself, Martin’s journey up until this point has been a little bit of a rollercoaster. He spent the first two years of his career in Charlotte, and thought he was on his way out of the NBA until he scrimmaged in front of the Heat before last season. He certainly wasn‘t an easy find—it was a call from rapper J. Cole to Miami assistant Caron Butler that secured Martin’s spot in that practice, and he recalled being “nervous as hell” auditioning for a job with his career hanging in the balance. Martin performed well enough to earn a two-way contract with Miami, which was eventually converted to a veteran minimum. Last summer, the Heat signed Martin to a three-year deal using their mid-level exception, a roughly $20.4 million deal that’s now widely viewed as a massive bargain.
During the regular season, Martin started in 49 of the 71 games he played in, taking over the role vacated by the burly P.J. Tucker, who left for Philadelphia last summer. Martin knew stepping into the shoes of a decorated veteran who helped Miami reach the conference finals would not be an easy task.
“The same thing you’re thinking, I’m thinking and I know everyone else is thinking,” Martin admits when discussing how he felt when he found out he would be Miami’s starting power forward at the beginning of the season. “You know you’re under a microscope. But you’re not playing for everybody else. I didn’t want to come in and have to be P.J. because I was never P.J.
“But I knew I could come in and impact that position in a different way. In a positive way and put my own spin on it.”
In the playoffs especially, Martin has given Miami a new dimension than what it had at the position last year. His athleticism leaps off the screen, as does his shooting ability. In the 2022 conference finals, when Martin did get on the floor, he was largely ignored by Boston on the perimeter. That hasn’t been the case in ’23, as Martin has demanded the Celtics’ attention. He is shooting 51.7% on catch-and-shoot threes, forcing Boston into tougher closeouts. And when the Celtics do chase Martin off the line, he’s been successful attacking the paint, shooting 72.5% within 10 feet of the rim.
He’s done whatever Spoelstra has asked of him. When Miami signed Kevin Love after the trade deadline, Martin readily relinquished his starting role after a quick conversation with his head coach, a decision Martin said was easy to accept because he knew everyone involved was committed to winning. (He also has the utmost respect for Spo, saying he has “full, 1,000% trust” in whatever he does.) In the postseason, Martin started only one game in the first two rounds—Game 2 vs. New York, when he got the nod for an injured Butler. With the Heat struggling in Games 4 and 5 against the Celtics, Spoelstra turned back to Martin for Game 6, and he responded with 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting in 41 minutes.
Martin says the biggest key to his success has been “not overthinking” when he’s on the floor. His biggest advantage is playing off Butler and Bam Adebayo, which he says allows him to hyperfocus on his role. While the personal practice reps in the offseason are mandatory for anyone who was in Martin’s position of trying to earn more trust last summer, for him, preparing for this year mentally was just as important.
“The biggest thing in the summer was re-circuiting my mental,” Martin says. “Knowing what type of year I was coming into, knowing what shoes I had to fill, knowing what people would say about me, I had to earn my stripes. In the beginning, it was tough. Sticking with it, being positive mentally, it’s been so crucial all year.”
For the Heat, no moment is more crucial than Monday’s Game 7. While Miami’s playoff success has been shocking, the improbability of its run is almost certainly to be forgotten if the Heat blow a 3–0 lead to their fiercest rival of the last few years. Martin, who didn’t get a chance to leave his imprint on the game exactly one year ago, is relishing the opportunity.
“This is the highest level of competition,” Martin says. “That’s how you know you’re about those moments. Because whenever those moments happen, I’m excited, I’m not nervous or scared. These are matchups I’ve been wanting, these are the looks I’ve been wanting, these are the guys I’ve been wanting to guard.
“S---, these are the moments I’ve been waiting for since I don’t know when.”
At least one year, you could say.