ORLANDO — You hate to see what has plagued the Celtics all season. The lackadaisical stretches, the propensity to foul too often and to become predictable late in games, came back to haunt them at the worst possible time.
They began stagnant, and they allowed a Miami Heat team that is as hungry as they are to come back and snatch Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals in overtime.
The Celtics' 117-114 loss on Tuesday night was just as much about what Miami did down the stretch as what Boston didn’t.
The Heat made the two biggest plays of the game: a Jimmy Butler conventional 3-point play to put Miami ahead in OT, and then Bam Adebayo’s block of a Jayson Tatum dunk that would have tied the game in the final seconds.
Good teams are going to make big plays. But the Celtics should be ashamed because they should have never let it get to that point. They actually led by 14 points early in the fourth quarter after an impressive third-quarter stretch.
But then the mistakes began. The Celtics began playing too physical on defense and put the Heat in the bonus for the final 7:18 of the fourth quarter, and 10 of Miami’s 35 fourth-quarter points were scored at the free throw line.
And as Miami sliced into Boston’s lead, the Celtics became more predictable offensively. It became the Jayson Tatum Show, and it wasn’t a highly rated performance. He went 2 for 10 from the field in the fourth quarter and overtime, and the Celtics scrapped the offensive game plan that got them there and relied on Tatum to be great.
But that cost them. Tatum settled for a 27-footer to try to win the game at the end of regulation with the Celtics in the bonus and the opportunity to drive. Meanwhile, players such as Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart were left out of the equation. The Celtics tried to win with hero ball, while the Heat peppered the Celtics with baskets from all of their starters.
The Celtics thought they may get a break when they were able to beat off the defending champion Raptors in seven games, but the Heat bring a different challenge. They are as relentless as Toronto, but with Adebayo as a rim protector.
And Heat coach Erik Spoelstra read the scouting report. The Celtics get lazy defensively after made baskets. So when Kemba Walker gave the Celtics a 5-point lead with a floater with 1:09 left in regulation. Tyler Herro countered with an open 3-pointer seven seconds later. The Celtics never had control of the game after that sequence.
“The fouls killed us,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Then the transition. Our transition defense, in addition to playing slower and pounding the ball more, we’ve just got to be a lot better in all those areas. These games go back and forth like this. We were down 6, then took that lead. We’ve got to play better, though. Transition defense really stands out. That Herro three with a minute left in regulation was a killer. There were multiple other plays that led up to that, that I thought let them back in.”
You have to credit the Heat for making big plays. The block was a “tip your cap” moment for Adebayo, who saved the game. But it has to be distressing that the Celtics wasted a 14-point lead in a game they had control of.
And Tatum can’t get too caught up in his superstardom. He is worthy of all the accolades he’s received, but he can also set up his teammates when he realizes the defense is focused on him. A drive and pass may have won the Celtics the game in regulation. But he did exactly what the Heat wanted. He settled for a low-percentage shot.
Meanwhile, Butler attacked the rim and got the hoop and the call. It should serve as a sobering lesson for the Celtics because the stakes are high. They have a legitimate shot to reach the NBA Finals. And 14-point leads are precious. You can’t botch them by over-fouling, and in one stretch Smart bypassing an open Brown under the basket for a corner 3-pointer.
Daniel Theis has to grab more than four rebounds in 35 minutes, and he can’t continuously get caught up with silly fouls late in games. Theis fouled out 1:29 into overtime, and the Celtics could have used him in the final minutes.
There is plenty of time to respond. There is no home-court advantage in the bubble, so the Heat just took the first of seven neutral-court games. But the Celtics are going to have to make adjustments. Goran Dragic kept Miami close in the first half by dominating his matchup with Walker. The Celtics are going to have to defend Dragic differently.
The Heat punished the Celtics in the paint and hung around long enough to steal Game 1 with some key buckets and the clutch play of Adebayo. So, the Celtics can either react with some much-needed adjustments and count this as a mulligan or try to beat the Heat in the same way.
Adjustments are suggested. The Celtics are in for a long series, and that’s if they play well.
But what they can’t do is just rely on Tatum’s heroics and cross their fingers. That may have worked before, but not here. Not in the conference finals.
“Exactly that, it got stagnant,” Smart said. “We rested. We got complacent. Against a team like this, you can’t get complacent. Up 14, up 20, up 30, they’re really good from playing behind. When it counted, they made the plays down the stretch. Damn good play by Bam. Great play by Bam. They did their job. It’s time for us to do ours in Game 2.”