The Celtics beat the Miami Heat, 117-106, on Saturday night, shrinking their series deficit to two games to one in the Eastern Conference finals.
It was probably the most critical game in Brad Stevens’s seven-year tenure as head coach of the Celtics. Boston’s first two games of the series featured blown leads and ugly losses. Thursday’s Game 2 beatdown triggered a 20-minute postgame argument in the Boston locker room, shattering furniture, egos, and team harmony.
All this put extra pressure on the Green Team before Game 3 and the Celtics responded with 3½ quarters of blood and thunder basketball. They defended, they passed and they dominated the paint. They ditched the iso-ball that killed them in Games 1 and 2. They built a 20-point lead with seven minutes to go before getting careless at the end.
“The whole team played with the right mentality,” said Stevens.
They also stopped pouting. And now they have three days off to feel good about themselves before the series resumes Wednesday. It’ll be safe to look at their smart phones again.
It’s probably a good thing for this young team that these games are played in the Orlando bubble, far from the talk shows and nonstop noise back home in Boston. The Celtics had enough to handle just getting their house in order Friday and Saturday without hearing all the stuff we’ve been saying about them since Thursday. Did they need to hear that Stevens is too soft? That Marcus Smart is too emotional? That Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are overrated? Did they need to hear that some folks in the NBA think of them as young, impatient frontrunners?
No. They did not.
So instead of dwelling on the negatives, they cooled off and focused on a solution. Stevens gathered his angry stars late Thursday night and again on Friday to put things right. Opportunities like this don’t come along that often. It was time to make some adjustments. Time to seize the day.
"It was more about, ‘What are we going to show ourselves to be?’ " said Stevens. “I thought we were a really special group, a good group, and the first time we were pushed and the emotions challenged us, I thought the group had some character.”
Game 3 was a gut-check game. We don’t know what’s going to happen now that the Celtics finally beat the Heat, but we know their season was over if they lost Game 3. No NBA team has recovered from a 3-0 deficit in a playoff series.
Everybody back in Boston was studying body language in the opening minutes of Game 3. Would there be head-butts instead of high-fives from the men in Green? Were Smart and Brown going to be at one another’s throats? Would it be a bubble freeze-out among teammates?
No. None of that. It was Hakuna Matata right from the center jump. Smart started the night with a drive to the basket and a three-point play, then found Brown under the basket for a nifty assist. Not content to pound the ball out top and launch threes, the Celtics attacked the basket and were rewarded.
The Celtics led by 6 when mystery guest Gordon Hayward (ankle) came off the bench for his first playoff action since Aug. 17. Hayward managed a basket and an assist in the first quarter which ended with the Celtics leading, 31-22. Hayward had 6 points and five rebounds in 30 minutes. Even better, he told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols he plans to stick with the Celtics through the end of the playoffs, even if his wife goes into labor back home in Indiana.
Boston bolted to a 12-point lead in the second, which had everybody back home nervous. The Celtics blew a 14-point lead in Game 1 and a 17-point lead in Game 2. A flurry of breakaway dunks by Brown and Tatum before halftime gave the Celtics a 63-50 lead at intermission. It was an old-timey clinic of passing and defense by the backs-against-the-wall Celtics.
Third quarters have been trouble for the Celtics, but not in Game 3. They kept their foot on the gas, mounting a 100-80 lead with seven minutes left. The Heat managed to get close at the end, but the Celtics were never in danger.
Two years ago the Celtics came within a game of making it to the NBA Finals. They led the Cavaliers three games to two. They needed only one more win to earn a date with the Warriors in the Finals. But they lost Game 6 in Cleveland and Game 7 on the Garden parquet.
They didn’t feel ready that year. And they would have been wiped out by the Warriors. This bid feels more real, even with the 2-1 deficit. The Celtics are playing a No. 5 seed. They have led by double-digits in every game. There is no home court advantage to gain or lose. They have put their worst moment behind them (maybe).
Is it too early to start speculating about a Celtics-Lakers final?
Sorry. Couldn’t help it.