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It got tight late, but Celtics go big inside to get back in East finals

Jayson Tatum throws down a dunk during the Celtics' Game 3 victory Saturday, which narrowed their deficit to 2-1 in the Eastern Conference finals against the Heat.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

On Thursday night the Celtics were unraveling. Facing a 2-0 deficit in the conference finals, a shouting match began in their locker room and tensions did not truly cool until the following day. All along, though, the players made it clear that the raw emotions came from a good place. They came because they cared and they did not want things to end this way. Not now.

And on Saturday night, they took the court and pushed back into this series with a 117-106 win over the Heat in which they never trailed.

Jayson Tatum had 25 points, 14 rebounds and 8 assists, and Jaylen Brown added 26 points and 7 rebounds. Gordon Hayward returned after missing a month with a sprained ankle. His statistics were modest: 6 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals in 30 minutes. But his presence on the court settled the others and created so many possibilities at both ends of the floor.

Observations from the game:


▪ Brown was excellent, particularly during a dominant first half when he set the tone with his aggressive drives to the rim and tenacious on-ball defense.

“I just had to get back to what I do best,” he said. “That’s what I came into the league doing. Different matchups, different situations call for me to be able to have to be versatile and play different roles for this team. But what I do best is get to the basket. So I wanted to just come out and be the best version of myself.”

▪ Hayward checked into the game with five minutes left in the first quarter, and it did not take long to see the impact he will make against this pesky Heat defense. He quickly fed Daniel Theis for a dunk, and when Miami switched to the zone, Hayward was deployed to the middle several times to act as a kind of floor general and make quick decisions to keep the ball on the move. Even when he is not scoring, his versatility, size and ball-handling are real assets.


“We really missed him physically and we missed his voice, his presence,” Kemba Walker said. “It was really good to have him back.”

▪ Hayward played 30 minutes and asked for a substitution several times. He said that he was “gassed” after the opening five minutes, and that it felt “weird” to play five-on-five for the first time in a month. He said after the game that he was tired and his ankle was sore, but Game 4 will not be played until Wednesday, as the NBA avoids crossing paths with Monday Night Football.

▪ The Heat got plenty of attention for their zone defense in recent days but once again spent the first quarter in a man-to-man set. The Celtics appeared focused on attacking the basket at the start, particularly with Brown hunting his matchup with Duncan Robinson, and they had success. Boston held a 60-36 edge in points in the paint in the game.

“We wanted to really attack,” coach Brad Stevens said." If we’re putting it on the floor, we want to get to the rim and make a play for ourselves or others."

▪ The Celtics made one subtle tweak by switching Smart — their best defender — onto Heat point guard Goran Dragic, who was dominant in the first two games with Walker serving as his primary defender. Dragic finished just 2 for 10 with five turnovers and the Heat were outscored by 29 points during his 28 minutes on the floor. Walker switched onto Jae Crowder, who is much more of a standstill threat as a shooter.


“Marcus’s ball pressure on Dragic is obviously something that we need to continue to look at,” Stevens said. “Dragic is a great player and he’s a guy that’s playing the best I’ve ever seen him play. So we’ll just continue to accept matchups and do our best, but everybody’s got to guard hard.”

▪ With 2:39 left in the second quarter the Celtics dusted off their seldom-used “best five” lineup of Brown, Tatum, Hayward, Walker and Smart, and it stretched a 51-48 lead to 63-50 by halftime. Brown truly ignited it with two steals and two fast-break baskets. Because of injuries, matchups, and reluctance, that unit had played just about 20 minutes together all year. But it’s clear it will be back in Game 4.

▪ The Celtics were doing just about everything right in the first half, but the Heat were lingering anyway thanks to Tyler Herro. The rookie poured in 11 points over a stretch of just 2 minutes, 17 seconds, including a 3-pointer that trimmed what was once a 12-point lead to 40-36. He had 18 points before the break. Still, it was probably encouraging for the Celtics that they went to halftime with a 63-50 lead despite shooting just 28.6 percent from beyond the arc while Miami connected on 44.4 percent of its tries.


▪ With 9:22 left in the third quarter Theis picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench. Stevens put Enes Kanter in for Theis in the first half, but in this situation opted for the rookie forward Grant Williams, who offers more versatility at both ends. He quickly hit a 3 from the left corner and then found a nice seam on the short baseline against the zone and scored inside, as the Celtics stretched their lead to 18.

▪ After the game the Celtics continued to mostly minimize the drama that followed Game 2. Stevens said he was encouraged by the way his team responded to the emotional night in this fashion. Brown said the entire situation was probably blown a bit out of proportion in recent days.

“We’re in a bubble, it’s a lot of grown men, a lot of passion and emotion going on,” Brown said, “but at the end of the day we’re a family. We represent this organization, we represent each other. We won’t let anything ever come in between that. We have a tremendous opportunity and we understand that. Ain’t nothing is going to stop us from trying to maximize that.”

▪ Hayward has decided not to leave Orlando to be with his wife for the birth of the couple’s fourth child. Hayward had originally planned to go, but he spent several weeks with them while rehabbing his sprained ankle last month.


“Robyn could be having a baby at any point in time, so I think it’s probably something that I’ll be here and by the time I get back, I might miss the birth if she just goes in and rushes into the hospital,” he said. “So we discussed it, we prayed about it, and I think it’s probably best if I stay here and help our team.”

▪ The Celtics coughed up 17- and 14-point leads in the first two games of the series  and did well snuffing out Miami rallies throughout this game. But there was one slightly concerning one at the end. Boston led 102-83 with six minutes left before the offense began to stall a bit, and the Heat attacked for some easy baskets inside. A Robinson 3-pointer with 1:12 left pulled the Heat within 109-101. Then at the other end Brown was called for a flagrant foul for elbowing Robinson in the face, giving Miami two free throws and possession. A Bam Adebayo basket made it 109-104, but that was as close as Miami would get.

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.