ORLANDO — So is this what implosion looks like in person? Screaming in the locker room by multiple parties. Items, sounding like chairs, being thrown, a voice that sounded like Brad Stevens screaming for his players to calm down. A shirtless Marcus Smart walking to the bathroom saying, telling his teammates, “Y’all on that [expletive]!”
That is what happened on Thursday night after the Celtics' second consecutive disheartening loss to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. Again, the Celtics raced to a big lead, then blew it because they forgot how to play solid, fundamental basketball against a zone defense. They came back to take the lead again, only to watch Jimmy Butler and his buddies take their lunch money again in the waning minutes.
The result was a 106-101 loss, and the Celtics trail, two games to none, to a team that’s better connected, more cohesive, and quite honestly doesn’t believe the Celtics can beat them.
Facing that reality, the Celtics’ locker room imploded after the game. The used-to-be-close Celtics were screaming at each other. How come they can’t score against the zone? Why did so-and-so take that bad shot? Why was Butler allowed to get two critical steals on hustle plays, while the Celtics watched as Butler created two layups?
After the locker-room fracas, which lasted about 20 minutes, the Celtics were of few words. They’re embarrassed. The Heat are laughing in their faces. Whatever the Celtics have, the Heat have a counter. Go ahead and take a 17-point lead, we’ll come back and beat you anyway.
Last year’s Celtics team gave up after falling behind to the Milwaukee Bucks, with Kyrie Irving headed out the door before the decisive Game 5. This year was supposed to be different. The Celtics were supposed to be as connected as they have been in years, but that’s not the case, obviously.
They are angry and players are pointing fingers at each other, or at least they were. They came out of the meeting rather calm, brushing it off as normal following a loss. But this wasn’t normal.
The Celtics can’t find ways to win. They can’t find ways to score. They turned Bam Adebayo into Shaquille O’Neal in the third quarter. They wasted another double-digit lead and then made no big plays down the stretch. They left all those special playoff moments to the Heat.
Jaylen Brown was the only Celtic to acknowledge the postgame argument was out of the ordinary. And he supported Smart. Can fences be mended in the next 48 hours? Was this actually a positive that a team that has been pretty cordial finally has decided it is tired of being outplayed and outhustled on the biggest stage?
“Just a lot of emotions flying around, obviously we feel like we could have, should have won, and we didn’t,” Brown said. "I think that’s why we love Marcus. He plays with passion. He’s full of fire. That’s what I love about him the most. He has that desire and that will and we need him to continue to have that.
“There’s ups and downs with families all the time, but we embrace each other for who we are. And for who Marcus is, I love him for it.”
But the Celtics can’t possibly act like everything is cool. They’re halfway from being swept, and no NBA team has ever come back from a 0-3 deficit. So their season is at stake on Saturday night. What the Celtics are guilty of right now is something that sent the just-departed Clippers home in shame: They’re a front-running team.
They don’t play well with sizable leads. They forget all their offensive principles. Boston scored 25 baskets in the first half and 11 in the second. The Celtics allowed Adebayo to score more baskets (7) in the third quarter than their entire team (4). Miami can’t be this much better than Boston, can it?
Or are the Heat the team the Celtics wished they could be? It certainly appears that way after two games. The Celtics will meet Friday, look at film, and try to figure out a response. But perhaps some feelings need to be repaired and egos healed after Game 2.
Miami is fully confident it can beat the Celtics without playing its best game. The Heat won one quarter Thursday, the third quarter that has plagued the Celtics the entire postseason. Is that coaching? Is that lack of preparation? Is that a team that’s not as good as it thinks it is?
Once again the players said they got lackadaisical in that stretch. Why? Has Miami not proven it can rally? Do they truly believe the Heat were OK with a split in the first two games? These are questions the Celtics just can’t answer.
Stevens never made adjustments to the Adebayo pick-and-roll. Daniel Theis was frustrated by his teammates because he kept getting picked on. Brown doesn’t only want to get the ball when the Celtics desperately need points and Tatum and Walker can’t get their shots off. Smart wants his teammates to play as hard and with as much passion consistently as he does.
So, here we are. The Celtics are a demoralized bunch, having hearts taken by a team that is just waiting for their mistakes and lack of focus. So Smart and others had a right to be angry, embarrassed, and defeated. The question now is how are they are going to respond on Saturday? Great teams come back from adversity.
What are the Celtics? Are they just the front-runners some around the league believe they are?