With the Celtics trailing the Heat by 2 points with 10 seconds left in overtime, Jayson Tatum dribbled near the top of the key and looked for his chance to add a spectacular playoff moment to his growing portfolio.
He got a step on Jimmy Butler, made a powerful drive to the hoop, and went up for a one-handed dunk. The only problem was that Bam Adebayo went up, too. The Heat forward met Tatum in mid-air and cleanly swallowed up his attempt, preserving Miami’s 117-114 win in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday night in Orlando.
“I had to make a play,” Adebayo said. “It’s the playoffs, and I made a great play.”
The Celtics had a chance to tie after Adebayo made 1 of 2 free throws with 2.2 seconds left. Tatum gathered Marcus Smart’s full-court inbounds pass, fell, got back up, and fired up a 3-pointer that caromed off the rim.
Tatum scored 30 points and Smart added 26. Goran Dragic had 29 points and seven rebounds to lead Miami.
The Celtics held a 14-point lead early in the fourth quarter but watched it evaporate as their ball movement stalled and they began to rely on more isolation opportunities late in the shot clock.
Miami took a 106-105 lead on a Butler 3-pointer with 22 seconds left in regulation. The Celtics tied the score on a free throw by Tatum, but he missed a potential winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
With 23.2 seconds left in overtime, Kemba Walker hit a tough step-back jumper that gave the Celtics a 114-113 lead. The Heat cleared out for Butler, who drove on Tatum and scored with 12 seconds left as he was fouled. He made the free throw, and Adebayo took care of the rest.
“They got the plays that they needed that mattered,” Smart said. “They did their job and it’s up to us to come back in Game 2 and do ours.”
Observations from the game:
▪ The Heat play more zone defense than any team in the NBA, and although they have not used it quite as frequently in Orlando, they dusted it off Tuesday. The Celtics moved the ball well against the defense for most of the game, but then the ball movement seemed to come to a halt late in the fourth quarter and in OT. Instead, Boston relied on isolation plays late in the shot clock, and that usually doesn’t end well.
“Not only was there probably too much pounding of the ball, there was also not as much space the way that they were guarding,” coach Brad Stevens said. “So we need to do a better job of that. We’ll go back and look at different ways that we can attack better at the end of the game.”
Added Smart: “We got stagnant. We rested and we got complacent, and against a team like this, you can’t get complacent.”
Gordon Hayward is an excellent remedy for stagnancy and a lack of ball movement, and the Celtics need him now more than ever. Stevens has said he expects Hayward back from his ankle sprain during this series, but the return date remains unclear.
▪ Adebayo’s blocked shot deserves another mention. On a normal night at a normal time, it would have been the play of the game. In the final seconds of overtime in a conference finals, it was one of the plays of the season.
Tatum did well to get a step on Butler, one of the game’s elite defenders, and Adebayo saw it clearly as he stood on the far side of the paint. He met Tatum in mid-air and his hand was almost bent backward, like a waiter holding a tray, directly above the hoop as he swatted the attempt at the last second. What’s more, the blocked shot went off the backboard rather than out of bounds, allowing Adebayo to corral the rebound.
“That can be a poster dunk and a lot of people won’t be willing or aren’t willing to make that play and put themselves out there,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Jayson Tatum, get into the launching pad, and he just made a big-time save for us.”
▪ Walker was slowed by a box-and-one defense for long stretches of the Toronto series, but on Tuesday he scuffled against Miami’s zone sets. The Heat put their longer wings at the top of the defense to make life tougher on shooters, and Adebayo did well to reduce Walker’s airspace in pick-and-roll situations, and he also just missed a few shots that he usually makes. Early in the third quarter, Stevens called time out and drew up for a play for Walker that got him a 3-point attempt, but he missed it.
Walker frequently seems to atone for rough offensive nights by hitting a big shot in a big spot, and for a moment it looked like he’d hit the winner when he drilled a step-back jumper with 22 seconds left in OT. But the Heat struck back.
Over the last three games, Walker is 11 for 46 overall and 3 for 22 on 3-pointers.
“I’m just playing terrible, to be honest,” he said. “Not much I can say, but I have to be better. I have to do better for this team on both ends of the floor, have to make better decisions, just have to make shots overall.”
▪ Tyler Herro had 12 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists, and if the rookie didn’t hit a 3-pointer in the final minute of regulation with his team down by 5, the Heat probably would have lost. Celtics rookie Romeo Langford could go on to have an excellent NBA career, but the Celtics were oh-so-close to having a chance to draft Herro. First, Boston lost a three-way tiebreaker coin flip with the Hornets and the Heat for the 12th-14th picks. Then the Heat selected Herro 13th overall. Maybe Boston still would have taken Langford 12th or 13th. But adding the 20-year-old Herro to play alongside Tatum and Brown for years to come would have been tantalizing.
▪ The Heat’s fourth-quarter comeback was sparked by Boston’s fouls. Miami entered the penalty with more than seven minutes left and took 12 free throws in the fourth quarter, hitting 10.
“The fouls killed us,” Stevens said. “Then the transition, our transition defense, in addition to playing slower and pounding the ball more. So we’ve just got to be a lot better in all those areas.”
The biggest foul, though, came in overtime, when Daniel Theis picked up his sixth with 3:31 left. Boston, which outscored Miami by 12 with Theis on the floor, held a 110-106 lead at that point.
▪ Brad Wanamaker had 11 points, 6 assists, and 5 steals. Stevens called on him for an important fourth-quarter stretch, and with Boston leading, 90-82, Wanamaker came up with a steal and coasted in for a layup that stretched the lead back to double digits. Wanamaker was used sparingly last season after leaving a lucrative deal overseas to sign with Boston, and had to be convinced a bit that there would be a role for him this season if he returned. It’s worked out.