If Jayson Tatum had completed his powerful dunk attempt in the final seconds of overtime on Tuesday, and the Celtics had gone on to win, their flaws that preceded it would have been more cosmetic.
Yes, they’d need to improve their transition defense. Yes, they’d need to get Kemba Walker going. Yes, they’d need to get back to ball movement and teamwork rather than isolation and constant dribbling. But they’d be up against the Heat in the conference finals, 1-0, leaving plenty of wiggle room for their reset.
But Tatum did not complete his dunk. Bam Adebayo met him in midair, tilted his left wrist back and used his hand as a lid over the rim, one of the more spectacular defensive plays in NBA playoff history.
The Heat won, 117-114, and now the Celtics' inefficiencies from the night are more glaring, and the margin for error has narrowed.
“I think we need to improve,” forward Jaylen Brown said Wednesday. “I don’t think yesterday was the best example of Celtics basketball, so we’ve got to get back to what we do best. We got away from that for whatever reason, fatigue, or whatever you want to call it. There’s no excuses.”
Boston was sloppy as it tried to slow the Heat’s fast breaks in Game 1. Center Daniel Theis said that players lost focus at times, complaining to the referees about a call that did not go their way instead of hustling back to defend.
The Heat know how effective Boston’s half-court defensive schemes are, so they tried their best not to allow the Celtics to get into them. Fast-breaks are most common on turnovers and long rebounds, but Miami even ignited its transition attack after made Celtics baskets, with coach Erik Spoelstra standing on the sideline and waving his arms in a hurry-up-and-go-get-them way.
Miami officially held a 16-10 edge in fast-break points, but the damage was even worse than that in situations where it simply attacked quickly before Boston’s rotations were set.
“What stood out more than anything was that the transition defense was really bad,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “To their credit, they attacked us all night down the floor. But some of those plays in the fourth, where we gave up layups and/or got lost on some threes hurt us. So we have to clean that up. We have to be a lot better in transition.”
During the end of the fourth quarter and overtime, the Celtics stopped moving the ball and mostly stood and watched Walker and Jayson Tatum try to save them with one-on-one actions.
Stevens said that is not the ideal approach, especially against a team like the Heat that can unspool a seemingly never-ending string of long, athletic wings built to smother those chances.
Of course, those plays looked much worse when the shots did not go in. Tatum had a good game until the end, but Walker scuffled throughout, and is now in a rut that dates back to the Raptors series. He has made just 5 of 34 3-pointers over the last five games.
Toronto flummoxed him with box-and-one sets, and on Tuesday Walker struggled to find seams in the Heat’s 2-3 zone. The Celtics know that if Walker finds a rhythm he can be an elite and dominant scorer. Now, they just have to help him unlock one of those games.
“We’ve got to help him to get easy looks, especially me,” Theis said. “I’ve got to get him open more on screens when he’s got the ball. Even the other guys, we’ve got to get him open when he’s off ball, we’ve got to set a screen for him so he’s coming off screens and get him a catch-and-shoot three instead of like just [isolation] and off-the-dribble step-back threes, especially in the beginning of the game. We need him out there, we need him to be aggressive.”
The Celtics could get a lift from forward Gordon Hayward sometime soon. Hayward has been sidelined since spraining his right ankle in Boston’s win over the 76ers in Game 1 of its first-round series.
He left the bubble to rehabilitate at home, but returned to Orlando last week. Stevens said he believes Hayward will be able to return at some point in this series, but that date remains unclear. He has been upgraded to doubtful for Game 2. Hayward has yet to complete a full practice but was expected to have a high-intensity individual workout on Wednesday afternoon.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.