MIAMI — Nobody wants to go back to 2020, and the Celtics swore they didn’t want to relive their last playoff matchup with the Miami Heat two years ago in the NBA bubble. Yet there they were Tuesday, getting outhustled and outwilled in the second half.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals was essentially two different games. The Celtics played picturesque basketball in the first half, splashing threes, dunking on alley oops, and playing stifling defense.
But as the game progressed, when the Heat were able to make adjustments and increase their intensity, the Celtics just wilted like a flower in the South Florida humidity.
Again, like in the bubble, the Heat pushed around the Celtics, used their vise-grip-like defense to force several turnovers and embarrassed Boston in a frightening third quarter en route to a 118-107 win at FTX Arena.
Just like in the bubble, where Boston raced out to big leads only to have the Heat chase them down with stirring spurts, the Celtics couldn’t score in a pivotal third quarter. The visitors went the first 7½ minutes without a made shot and were outscored over the 12 minutes, 39-14.
They left the third down 17, but the most infuriating part of the Celtics’ quest to steal Game 1 without two starters was it was still a winnable game. Boston missed eight free throws and committed 16 turnovers. Meanwhile, the Celtics fouled Jimmy Butler repeatedly, sending the All-Star forward to the line 18 times.
“We lost control of the game in the second half,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “During the time they was the harder-playing team. That’s not what we do. We’ve got to get in there and get in the mix. That wasn’t our best effort.”
Boston made countless mistakes. Perhaps it was fatigue after finishing off Milwaukee about 52 hours prior, or the absences of Marcus Smart and Al Horford. But that’s an excuse. The Celtics put themselves in the position to make a statement in this series, outplaying the No. 1 seed in the first half.
But yet, that third quarter brought back shades of the bubble when the Heat turned up their will and fortitude, putting the Celtics in a helpless stupor.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka said the past few days he had prepared his team for Miami’s toughness, but it’s obviously different to experience that level of intensity.
Boston was 2-for-15 shooting in the third quarter with eight turnovers. The Celtics were disrupted from the opening of the third quarter. Jayson Tatum played all 12 minutes and attempted two shots and committed six turnovers. Brown missed all four of his shots.
What was more distressing was the Celtics lost their poise, allowing the Heat to just snatch the ball out of their hands and then start fast breaks.
Butler, the primary source of the Celtics’ bubble meltdown, scored 17 points in the period, 9 on free throws, in addition to three steals. He picked the Celtics apart, forcing them into submission by reading passing lanes and just bullying ballhandlers.
“It flipped very quickly,” Udoka said. “We lost our composure. We won three quarters but obviously that one is going to stand out. [And] 39-14 on 2-for-15 [shooting] is tough to overcome. We had one poor quarter that hurt us and it was strictly from a physicality standpoint.”
Physicality is what catapulted the Heat to the NBA Finals two years ago, and nothing has changed, at least for the opening game. The Celtics are going to need to increase their toughness, stop screaming at the officials, and stay focused through these types of onslaughts, because they’re going to happen again.
“Of course [we need to be tougher],” Udoka said. “That was the message after the quick timeout at the start of the half. They were going to increase their physicality.
“It was a little disappointing that we got caught off guard as far as that. But simple cleanups. We reverted back [to bad habits] in the third quarter and it cost us.”
Obviously, the Celtics are going to lose toughness when Smart (foot) and Horford (health and safety protocols) are out. But again, this game was winnable. Butler scored 27 points in the second half and attempted 12 free throws, singlehandedly taking control of the game on both sides.
Discouragement and frustration set in, which is exactly what Butler and his guys expected from the Celtics. The Heat are going to push you until you break. The question is whether the Celtics have enough savvy, bravado, and pride to push back.
“Al and Marcus, two of our veteran guys, can kind of calm us down at times,” Udoka said. “We might miss that some, but it was a little bit of everybody. It wasn’t Payton [Pritchard] and those guys, it was Jayson and some of those [veterans] making the same mistakes.”
Udoka’s right. Tatum committed three turnovers on consecutive possessions, two on just lazy, unfocused passes, and another when he drove and allowed Max Strus to snatch the ball from his hands and then complete an uncontested dunk that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Tatum had stretches of dispassionate play and frustration that was quite reminiscent of the bubble. He can’t slip on defense or just stop after drives when he doesn’t get foul calls because he’s now a superstar. Butler was the better player in Game 1 and, if that continues, the Celtics are indeed cooked.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.