MIAMI — Opening night of the Eastern Conference finals got off to a rotten start for the Celtics.
No Marcus Smart (bruised foot). Then, without warning, no Al Horford (health and safety protocol).
Losing Smart and Horford against the rested, top-seeded Heat made Tuesday’s Game 1 feel like climbing Kilimanjaro for a Celtic team that just survived seven smashmouth playoff games against the defending world champs. The shorthanded Celts were forced to go back to work only two days after gutting the Bucks on Causeway Street.
Boston got it done early, taking a 13-point first half lead, but Miami wore down the exhausted Celts at the start of the third with a Jimmy Butler-led, 22-2 run en route to a 118-107 win. Game 2 is Thursday at FTX Arena.
The third quarter could not have been more of a disaster for Boston. The Celtics were outscored, 39-14, committed eight turnovers (six by Jayson Tatum!) and had only one assist. It would be hard to pick the worst moment for turnover-plagued Boston, but it might have been when Jaylen Brown was viciously stuffed at the rim by Bam Adebayo on a drive to the bucket.
“They out-toughed us, out-physicaled us,” said Celtic coach Ime Udoka. “I didn’t think we responded well on either end of the court. We got muscled around and lost our composure. They just came out and imposed their will . . . we all got caught up in officiating in that quarter.”
All true. All bad. All inexcusable, even with tired legs. The Celtics gripe to officials more than any team in recent memory and it’s a bad look for this good team.
Boston showed no evidence of fatigue or discouragement at the start. Grant “Steph Curry” Williams hit a three to start the game, Miami missed its first seven shots, and the Celts ran to an 18-9 lead before Miami super sub Tyler Herro rescued the Heat and closed the score to 28-25 at the end of one.
Rob Williams, back in the starting lineup for the first time in a while, was a big part of the early Celtic surge. Payton Pritchard (18 points) made 4 of 5 off the bench and shot the Celts to a 47-34 lead midway through the second. The Celtics led, 62-54, at intermission. It felt too good to be true.
Butler (41 points, 9 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 blocks) never let up. He scored 17 in the sizzling third that ended with the Heat leading, 93-76. We spent the fourth quarter hoping there would be no blood, no fights and no ejections.
Udoka went with Derrick White in place of Smart, and Grant Williams in place of Horford in his starting lineup.
“This is the world we’ve been living in for a long time,’’ said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. “Expect the unexpected. The last three years we’ve all had to manage all the unpredictably.’’
Spo Knows. His Heat beat the Celtics in the Conference finals in the bubble in 2020.
Here we are two years later and the scourge of COVID still rears its ugly head.
The Celts were prepared to be without Smart, who hurt his foot Sunday in Game 7. But less than three hours before Game 1 it was learned that Horford had gone into the NBA’s health and safety protocol and would be unavailable.
“Just found out about it two hours ago,’’ Udoka said at 7 p.m. pregame press conference.
When Boston’s rookie coach was asked if Horford tested positive, he answered, “We don’t talk comment on status. He’s doing fine.’’
Horford missed games while in the health and safety protocol in October and December. In April, the 35-year-old veteran told the Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach he’s been vaccinated.
Horford attended the morning shootaround with all of his teammates. When Udoka was asked about “close contacts” on the roster, the coach answered, “Unsure about that.’’
Udoka was similarly unsure about Horford’s status for Game 2. The Celtics may already know. Or they may not. At times it seems like no one knows anything about league protocols when it comes to player availability. Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy made what seemed like an impossibly speedy recovery during the Bruins’ seven-game series against Carolina, missing only one game in the protocol, before showing up on a private jet to play Game 5 in Raleigh, N.C. If Horford tested positive Tuesday, which certainly sounds possible, he is unlikely to play Game 2 Thursday. He needs two negative tests before he’s cleared to play.
The Celtics were favored to win this series, but that was with a healthy Horford for all seven games.
The Heat took a while to get going Tuesday, but they were not going to lose to a Boston team playing without two starters.
There was no Miracle in Miami for Boston on this night.