Game 1 hurt. Like, really hurt. A blown fourth-quarter lead, an overtime loss, and a Celtics team stung by the pain of lost opportunity. But it was only Game 1, and in a best-of-seven series like this, in the Eastern Conference finals against the Heat, that means it’s no time for panic. There’s still plenty of time, plenty of games to get even.
And boy, did it seem like Boston was determined to get even in Game 2 Thursday night in the bubble. A dominating first half, with a commanding double-digit lead keyed by the return of the real Kemba Walker — who kept himself busy draining threes and dishing assists — and the Celtics were cooking.
Until, again, they weren’t. So for a second straight game, here they are, frustrated, dejected, and left looking for answers. Left to answer for what went wrong, left to lick the wounds about how they let another one get away, left this time to account for such high postgame emotions and heated postgame frustration they could be heard by on-site reporters yelling, with banging sounds, inside their locker room.
Yes, Game 1 hurt.
But Game 2 hurt even more, and now, after a 106-101 loss to Miami that dropped the Celtics into an 0-2 series hole, if they don’t figure out how to feel better by Game 3, their dream of an NBA Finals appearance moves to the brink of extinction.
“We’ve got to figure some things out. That’s two times now we’ve had a couple double-digit leads and we let go of the ropes,” Jayson Tatum said. “We’ve got to figure out why that keeps happening. And we’ve just got to be prepared to win the next one. Not think that we have to win four of the next five or whatever we have left. Just win the next one.”
They could start by winning the next third quarter. Once again, that’s where they lost the game.
Up by as many as 17 in the first half, the Celtics limped out of intermission and straight into a Miami buzzsaw, suffering a 20-point swing by the time the carnage was over. The Heat outscored them, 37-17, in the quarter, enough for an 84-77 lead heading into the fourth, but more importantly, enough to plant the seeds of doubt that history was about to repeat itself.
And so it did.
“Man, they outplayed us,” Walker said by way of explanation, his head shaking before he even spoke a word. “They outplayed us. It’s really unacceptable on our behalf. It was just a really bad quarter for us. We didn’t continue to do the things that we did to get us up, to get us that lead. We got comfortable and they took great advantage of it. They play hard, they played really hard. They wanted it.”
Never mind Boston pushing its way back into the game, even taking a 5-point lead on Walker’s fourth 3-pointer, with a little more than four minutes to go, a stretch that gave their coach, Brad Stevens, some hope all might work out in the end.
“I thought that once we did that, we were really playing pretty well,” Stevens said.
It was but an illusion, a precursor to ultimate disappointment. The Heat roared right back, and once again, the Celtics wilted, throwing up shots in traffic, unable to find any offensive rhythm against a zone defense that wore them down, victimized by a few more clutch Heat shots.
“[Goran] Dragic hit the two, hard contested shots over [Daniel] Theis, one at very end of the shot clock,” Stevens said. “Turnovers obviously hurt us. We did a lot of good things the last seven minutes. We just shot ourselves in the foot in the third.”
Unthinkable given the object lesson the Celtics received in Game 1. Inexcusable given the stakes of a series hanging in the balance. As many times as the guys in green admitted their own ugly truth — “They outplayed us. That’s the long story short. They outplayed us,” Tatum repeated — if they don’t recover from this, Stevens will have to answer for that disconnect.
But first, he’ll have to explain a little more of that postgame kerfuffle, the emotional outburst led by Marcus Smart that other players went from ignoring (Walker) to confirming (Jaylen Brown) to protecting (Tatum).
“What happens in the locker room has got to stay in the locker room,” Tatum said. “It’s not supposed to come out here, to talk about it. That’s why we go into the locker room and talk to each other, whether we win or we lose. That’s that.”
That was that.
The Celtics didn’t want to go through this again, and the way they came out of the gate Thursday night, it sure didn’t seem like they were destined for a second straight heartbreaker. If only they’d come out for the second half the same way. Then maybe today’s story would be different, and that Game 1 loss wouldn’t hurt anymore, and this series wouldn’t feel so out of reach.
“We pulled apart and we didn’t play well,” Stevens said. “And they did a good job. We’re not beating this team if we’re not completely connected on both ends of the court. Right now they’re a better team and we’re going to have to fight to get back into this series.”
Down one game and it’s no time to panic. Down, 0-2, after another big blown lead? Might just be time to worry.