BOSTON – With his 2023 Miami Heat Eastern Conference finals hat tilted to the left and a white T-shirt to match, Caleb Martin bobbed his head to the beat of Rick Ross’ “The Boss” as it blared energetically in the victorious visiting locker room.
For much of Game 7 on Monday, the 6-foot-5, 205-pounder was the biggest boss on the parquet floor for the Heat, scoring 26 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and nailing four 3-pointers in a 103-84 rout of the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. For his efforts, Martin finished one media vote shy of beating NBA All-Star teammate Jimmy Butler for the Eastern Conference finals MVP trophy. Considering Martin’s unsuspecting road to the NBA Finals, his story — going from undrafted to waived to a two-way contract to playing a starring role on a potential NBA champion — seemed worthy of Rick Ross’ lyrics.
“What people can learn from my story is just stay in the saddle,” Martin told Andscape. “Stay in the saddle, man. If you put the work in, eventually it will come to light. People that got drafted ahead of you eventually have to see you. That’s when you have to take advantage…
“This means everything. It hard to even explain right now. It’s hard to even think. I’m numb right now. I’m just trying to enjoy it.”
While Martin averaged a career-high 9.6 points and 4.8 rebounds for Miami this season, his playoff ascension was certainly not expected. On April 16, the Heat entered the playoffs as a major longshot — an eighth seed playing two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. After stunning the Bucks in five games and New York Knicks in six, the Heat were an underdog once again against the Celtics — the East’s No. 2 seed and reigning conference champion. But after taking a shocking 3-0 series lead over Boston, the Heat nearly became the first NBA team to blow such a lead before winning Game 7 on Monday.
In the Eastern Conference finals, Butler averaged 24.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 2.6 steals per game, and led Miami to a come-from-behind victory in Game 2. Martin was also key, averaging 19.3 points and 6.4 rebounds while shooting 60.2% from the field and 48.9% from 3-point range. The Heat had a 9.6 net rating when Martin played in the East finals and were a minus-4.2 when he sat. Martin was also stellar defensively as Boston shot 35 percent from the field (20-of-57) and 8% from 3-point range (2-of-25) when he contested shots.
Martin is the first player in Heat history to score 100 points, shoot 60% from the field and 45% from 3-point range in a single playoff series.
“The basket was just getting bigger,” Martin said about his Game 7 play. “I was just staying focused and understanding my team needs. My team needs contribution from me whether it’s offense or defense. I wasn’t surprised. I was confident. I just knew that when I get the opportunity it’s going to come to light.”
Said Heat center Kevin Love to Andscape: “He stepped up his game in a way that championship players do. He could’ve easily have been walking away with that (Eastern Conference MVP) trophy, but he’s all about the team, the team, the team.”
What makes Martin’s playoff series against heralded Boston even more stunning is he didn’t average over 12 points in either of the first two playoff series. But the way Butler sees it, Martin isn’t a secret anymore as he filled the void for Miami without injured guards Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo.
“Everybody has seen Caleb work on those shots day in, day out,” Butler said. “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.”
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said being a “real competitor” is in Martin’s soul.
“You get to the higher stakes, the further you get along, the more competitors are going to reveal themselves,” Spoelstra said. “Game 7’s, 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.”
It wasn’t that long ago when it was questionable if Martin would have any role in the NBA.
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman, who coached twin brothers Caleb and Cody Martin at Nevada, called them two of the most competitive players he’s ever coached.
“When we recruited Caleb we felt both he and Cody were two of the most versatile players in the country and both could play one [point guard] through five [center] at the college level,” Musselman told Andscape. “We thought with the Martin twins we could make a Final Four.”
Caleb Martin averaged 19.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game for Nevada as a senior during the 2018-19 season and earned 2018 Mountain West Conference Player of the Year honors. Cody Martin was selected 36th overall in the second round of the 2019 NBA draft by the Charlotte Hornets.
Caleb Martin, however, wasn’t selected.
“That was one of the hardest nights for me,” said Omar Khanani, a long-time basketball trainer for the Martin twins. “I had so much joy for Cody, who got drafted. But you couldn’t really celebrate it. [Cody] had to walk outside so we could celebrate. But we weren’t enjoying it because Caleb didn’t get drafted. The next day [Caleb] was pretty emotional and asked, ‘Why doesn’t anybody want me?’ ”
Caleb Martin ended up signing an Exhibit 10 contract on July 31, 2019, with the Hornets, joining his brother in Charlotte. The Hornets upgraded him to a two-way contract on Oct. 19, 2019. Caleb Martin averaged 5.3 points and 16 minutes per game in 71 contests with the Hornets from 2019 to 2021, and also spent time with the G League Greensboro Swarm.
To Caleb Martin’s surprise, the Hornets waived him on Aug. 7, 2021. He said he got through it with the help of his brother, his family, his faith and his work.
“That was worse than not getting drafted,” Martin said. “That was the first time where I felt that I wasn’t good enough. Being drafted or undrafted, there are only a certain amount of spots for  kids. But a team deciding to cut you because they feel like you can’t contribute to what they are trying to do, that hurt.”
Looking back, Khanani said: “It would end up being the greatest thing that ever happened to him.”
Khanani said that while Caleb Martin was always a hard worker, getting waived brought “a different type of urgency.” Martin returned home to Raleigh, North Carolina, where he worked out three times a day beginning at 8 a.m. with Khanani at a gym owned by friend and famed rapper J. Cole. Khanani said J. Cole was impressed by Martin’s work ethic and dominance of pickup games and couldn’t understand how he was a free agent. He called Heat assistant coach Caron Butler about Martin, singing his praises. Butler then talked to the Heat brass about Martin, who was already on their list of free agents.
Uncertain about his NBA future, a nervous Martin next went to Miami, where he took part in scrimmages. Miami veteran Udonis Haslem was quickly impressed by yet another undrafted player that fit right in. Heat center Bam Adebayo wasn’t surprised by what he saw from his fellow Carolinian.
“He had to work. But just like all our undrafted guys, he came in, fell in line and listened to my words and bought in,” Haslem told Andscape. “I told him, ‘We don’t have room for error.’ We got to work our ass off, be on top of everything and we have to work 10 times harder to sit next to the common man’s table. That’s our attitude… You have to work when you come here.”
Said Adebayo: “I’ve known Caleb since high school. I always known he could hoop. He just needed that opportunity and that structure.”
The Heat signed Martin to a two-way contract on Sept. 14, 2021, which eventually was upgraded to a contract for the remainder of the season. Martin believed the “Heat Culture” and “underdog mentality” was a good fit for him. He also said the player development that the Heat are renowned for helped him grow. The Heat rewarded Martin with a three-year, $20 million deal last offseason.
“The people here, I just mesh with them,” Martin said.
The signing of Martin has more than paid its dividends for Finals-bound Miami. As Martin walked off the floor Monday, newfound fans agreed as they yelled, “Caleb… Caleb…”
“I am kind of numb right to be real with you,” Martin said. “This is crazy right now. We are trying to stay focused. Try to get four more [wins]. But we are definitely going to enjoy the moment…
“This means everything. It just sheds light on the work you put in. You couldn’t have told me that I’d be here two years ago, three years ago, five years ago. It’s a long journey. But it shows you that eventually you can get to where you want to be. This is awesome.”
Said Khanani: “We both shed a tear. We both got emotional and said, ‘This is what you work for, this is what you dream about, this is what you talk about.’ It’s like a fairy tale, almost. He worked hard to get to this point and look where he is now.”
The Heat enjoyed the moment in the visiting locker room with Haslem serving as deejay. It was likely that Rick Ross’ most popular hit, “Hustlin,” was played. Even with Martin’s success coming to the NBA Finals’ global stage, the Heat don’t expect their new star to stop hustling now.
“That might have surprised y’all,” Butler said. “To the untrained eye, he just looks like he’s an undrafted guy who has been in the G League, who started with Charlotte, and now he’s here. Started on a two-way contract [with Miami]. That’s what it looks like to y’all. To us, he’s a hell of a player, hell of a defender, playmaker, shot maker, all of the above.”
Said Spoelstra: “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.”