ORLANDO – While the Celtics have basked in the good feelings of a slight momentum shift against the Miami Heat in an elongated three-day break, the reality is they still trail in the Eastern Conference finals and desperately need to step up again Wednesday night in Game 4 to pull even.
After the Celtics stumbled down the stretch in losing the first two games of the best-of-seven series, they made adjustments Saturday in Game 3 and welcomed back Gordon Hayward, who made a major difference in their offensive approach.
But with three days off and facing Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, one of the best tacticians in the NBA, the Celtics are guaranteed to see a different look in Game 4. On Saturday, the Heat strayed from the zone defense and ball movement that helped spur a pair of series-opening wins.
The Celtics, desperate for a win, took advantage.
Game 4 promises to be more intense, with the Celtics intent of not falling into a 3-1 hole in the series.
“We’re still down, 2-1, it’s never time to relax in a series until it’s over with,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said. “There’s even more of a sense of urgency when you’re down. We’re still losing and we know that. And we won’t all get it back in one game. We’ve got to just go one at a time.”
Game 3 was essentially a must-win contest for the Celtics; no team has come back from an 0-3 deficit. And only 13 times has a team come back from a 3-1 deficit, including the Denver Nuggets this season under the Orlando bubble.
A win would make it a best-of-three event, but the Celtics realize they have to prepare for Miami’s adjustments. Spoelstra, of course, was tight-lipped Tuesday but the ongoing theme is getting off to a better start. The Heat are minus-20 in the first quarter of the series.
There were two key stretches – both in the second half – that lifted Miami to wins in Games 1 and 2. The Heat attempted 12 free throws in the fourth quarter of Game 1, and the Celtics became stagnant on offense in the third quarter of Game 2 as center Bam Adebayo took over and scored 15 of Miami’s 37 points.
“I think we’ve just got to start off better,” Heat forward Jimmy Butler said. “I don’t think we started off anywhere near where we’re capable of. I think we dig ourselves a hole and try to fight back out of it. I think going into this next one, it’s up to the starting five to come out with a great start.”
Butler believes that the slow starts have put more pressure on the bench, and the Heat reserves have not responded. While rookie shooting guard Tyler Herro is shooting 17 of 40 from the field against the Celtics and was sparkling for stretches of Game 3, the remaining Miami reserves are 6-for-32.
“When we start off flat, it kind of trickles down the line,” Butler said. “It doesn’t get the bench in a groove that they are comfortable playing with, because they see us being lazy on both ends of the floor. They kind of follow our suit. It’s not on them. That’s on us as the starting five to play better as a whole and start this game off the way that we can and the way we’re supposed to so they can come in and hoop.”
While Hayward said he’ll be better in Game 4 with more reps, the key playercould be Jaylen Brown, who flourished in Game 3 (26 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists) after he took a more active role against the zone and was aggressive defensively with three steals. Brown was stuck in the corner for most of the second halves of Games 1 and 2 until he hit a pair of 3-pointers in Game 2 that nearly brought the Celtics back.
The goal for Brown is to be aggressive from the opening tip.
“But for me, I realize that just being out on the floor, there’s so many different ways I can affect the game with the ball in my hands, without the ball in my hands,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter. I can assert myself whether the ball comes to me or not. Just being aggressive any time I catch it, being aggressive on defense, being aggressive on rebounding, all that stuff adds up. Going forward it will be more of an emphasis, for sure.”
Both teams know adjustments are necessary. The Heat realize they easily could have lost the first two games and haven’t played their best basketball, while the Celtics understand Spoelstra will unleash a new strategy.
“You can see that formula [in Game 3]. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that that ain’t going to work,” Spoelstra said. “But again, it’s competition. They had something to say about that, and they came out with great force off the dribble. They were driving and attacking in a lot of different situations, and we did not handle that well. We have to do a better job of that.”
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.