As the grisly third quarter unfolded Thursday night, the Celtics' shoulders began to sag, miscues by one player were met with exasperated looks by another, and the crumbling seemed like it would not stop.
When the period mercifully ended, what was once a 17-point lead had been completely erased, and the Heat were playing with the confidence of a team that believed its opponent was fragile.
Although Boston made one fourth-quarter run to retake the lead, it was unable to hold onto it, as Miami took a 106-101 win to seize command of this series, 2-0.
After the game, there were multiple reports of tumult in the locker room, from shouting and swearing to items being thrown. The players mostly shrugged off the situation later, but it likely will be a narrative as this series unfolds, either for providing an emotional jolt, or for being the first true indicator that the end was near.
“I think we need every piece, everybody to be all in and to continue to bring that energy is what we’re going to need,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “But I think this series is far from over.”
The Celtics coughed up a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 1, but Thursday’s result was probably more damaging because of the predicament it leaves this team in.
Boston was outscored, 37-17, in the third quarter, but pushed back in front in the fourth. A 3-pointer by Kemba Walker capped a 15-2 run and gave Boston a 94-89 lead with 4:26 left.
But the Heat responded with a quick 10-1 burst that ended when Jimmy Butler had a steal — one of Boston’s 20 turnovers — and fed Jae Crowder for a layup that made it 102-95. Back-to-back Jaylen Brown 3-pointers pulled Boston within 104-101 with 48.7 seconds left, and he had an open look to tie it after a Heat turnover, but it caromed off the rim and the Celtics would get no closer.
Observations from the game:
▪ According to multiple reports, Marcus Smart was especially fiery in the postgame locker room. He did not speak to the media after the game, and the Celtics mostly tried to minimize the situation. Coach Brad Stevens said players were just emotional after a hard loss. Walker called it “nothing.” Jayson Tatum said players were frustrated, but that they should be frustrated after falling behind 0-2.
Said Brown: “In families there’s ups and downs, there’s fights and emotions, but that’s exactly what we are: A family. We’re going to hold each other accountable, and we’ve got to do what it takes to come out and execute next game.”
▪ Tatum attempted just two 3-pointers. Not nearly enough. But the Heat’s zone defense deserves some credit for that. It was suffocating in the second half. The length at the top of the zone has given Boston fits.
“I think just being ready to shoot, obviously,” Tatum said. “Then just being able to shoot over defenders, any daylight I get. I think I turned a couple of them down, which I shouldn’t do. So that’s on me.”
▪ The Celtics had 13 fast-break points on 6-of-8 shooting in the first half and didn’t even attempt a shot on a fast break in the second.
▪ Stevens put rookie Grant Williams in to play small-ball center as the Celtics defense locked in to start the fourth quarter, and it was effective. Williams is 6 feet 6 inches, but he stands his ground in the paint and is capable of switching on every screen. The Heat scored just 5 points during his six minutes on the floor to start the fourth.
▪ Stevens will have some difficult choices to make with his big men moving forward. Enes Kanter received the backup center minutes in place of Robert Williams. He had an excellent offensive first half, as he overpowered the Heat inside and went 4 for 4 with 10 points and 6 rebounds, a massive boost for Boston’s bench. But Miami wisely looked to attack him in pick-and-rolls in the second, where he is a liability.
▪ In fairness to Kanter, Bam Adebayo feasted at the rim in the third quarter regardless of the defender. He had four dunks over a stretch of about four minutes. The Heat had been struggling from the perimeter, and these simple pick-and-rolls and lobs ignited their attack and created openings elsewhere.
▪ The game’s biggest swing occurred midway through the third quarter. The Heat were on the verge of committing a shot-clock violation as a loose ball rolled toward the sideline. Daniel Theis grabbed it just before the buzzer went off and the Heat reached in to force a jump ball. It’s rare to see the shot clock reset so suddenly on such a scattered play, but it did, and moments later Crowder drilled a 3-pointer as he was fouled, giving Miami a 4-point play.
“It’s really unacceptable on our behalf,” Stevens said of the third quarter. “We didn’t continue to do the things that we did to get us up and get us that lead. I think we got kind of comfortable and those guys, they took great advantage of it.”
▪ The Celtics got into the free throw penalty with 8:31 left in the fourth but were unable to take advantage, attempting just two free throws over the rest of the game.
▪ It seems almost irrelevant now, but there were plenty of promising developments in the first half for the Celtics. Walker snapped out of his rut and hit 6 of 10 for 14 of his team-high 23 points, Boston held Miami to 38.3 percent shooting and held a 27-16 rebounding edge. It was a good way to vault to a 17-point lead. But it did not last.
“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. Got to get back to being that, which we’ve been at times. But right now they’re a better team, and we’ll have to fight to get into this series.”
▪ Walker played just 34 minutes, compared with 39 for Brown and 42 for Tatum. He said afterward it was unrelated to the knee issues that limited his playing time earlier in the Orlando restart.
▪ New Hampshire native Duncan Robinson, who struggled with foul trouble in Game 1, was Miami’s only consistent source of offense in the first quarter. He drilled four 3-pointers, including a catch-and-shoot from the left corner when the ball seemed to be in his hands for a millisecond. He finished 6 of 12 from beyond the arc while the rest of his team was just 8 for 31.
▪ Gordon Hayward was upgraded to doubtful on Wednesday night but ultimately ruled out Thursday as he continues to recover from last month’s ankle sprain. The Celtics believe he will be able to return soon. Boston caught a bit of a scheduling break when Game 4 was pushed to Wednesday, almost certainly so it would not go up against “Monday Night Football.” That will give Hayward two extra days.
▪ Stevens made a substantial tweak to his early substitution patterns, inserting Kanter and Romeo Langford less than five minutes into the game. But was a short stint for Langford, who suffered an adductor strain just a minute later and missed the rest of the game.