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Here’s what the Heat’s veterans said at halftime to inspire the surge that flipped the script in Game 1

P.J. Tucker (left) and Jimmy Butler were key to the Heat's third-quarter resurgence Tuesday.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

MIAMI — Even before tipoff, it felt as though Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals was Miami’s to blow.

Not only did the Celtics have just one day off after their hard-fought seven-game series against the defending champion Bucks, they also were without two of their starters: guard Marcus Smart (right foot sprain) and forward Al Horford (health and safety protocols).

The Heat, too, were missing a starter, Kyle Lowry (hamstring), but an otherwise healthy squad, home-court advantage, and four days of rest seemed like enough to give Miami the edge Tuesday night.

So when the Celtics jumped out to an early lead and headed into the half with an 8-point advantage, 62-54, most of the fans at FTX Arena had to be wondering, “Wait, what?”


“We’re accustomed to getting multiple stops in a row,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “And when that’s not happening, there’s a lot of emotions. There can be disappointment, frustration, anger, all of that.”

Heat players were stunned by the Celtics’ ability to carve up their defense, so much so that Spoelstra barely spoke inside Miami’s locker room during halftime. Instead, the team’s veteran leaders — Udonis Haslem, Jimmy Butler, P.J. Tucker, and Lowry — dominated the conversation, stressing the need to pick up the intensity. The Celtics looked far too comfortable for their liking, especially inside the paint, attacking the rim with ease.

“We were way too soft,” Tucker said. “They got to pretty much everything they wanted.”

Then came the third quarter, when Miami seized control and outscored Boston, 39-14. Celtics coach Ime Udoka called a timeout after the Heat opened with a 10-1 burst and then again, three minutes later, after the Heat extended their run to 18-2.

The second timeout couldn’t stop the barrage, either, as the Celtics committed turnovers on back-to-back possessions, leading to 4 more Heat points.


“It’s like, ‘What took us so long?’ ” said Tucker. “We’ve got to get to it faster. It took a long time for us to get aggressive.”

Jimmy Butler (center) was at the heart of Miami's smothering defense in the third quarter.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

The Heat were particularly pleased with how their defense sparked their offense in the third, allowing them to get out into transition. Butler logged four steals and forced half of Boston’s eight turnovers in the quarter. He alone outscored the Celtics, tallying 17 points and knocking down 4 of his 5 field goal attempts.

“Jimmy just really inspired everybody in the third quarter,” Spoelstra said. “Every time and pocket in the game when we needed to control the game or get the right shot or make the right decision, Jimmy had his fingerprints on that.”

But Spoelstra stressed that the comeback was a team effort. Gabe Vincent, who started in place of Lowry, played all 12 minutes in the third, knocking down two 3-pointers. Tucker, who exited in the first half after rolling his ankle, returned as a defensive menace, logging a steal.

The Celtics couldn’t establish any offensive rhythm, needing more than seven minutes to make their first field goal. Whether the bad passes were a result of fatigue or Miami’s physicality, the Celtics continued to turn the ball over — and the Heat took full advantage.

Ask any Heat player and he’ll emphasize the importance of defense in their comeback. Of the remaining four teams, the Heat have the league’s best defensive rating in the playoffs.


“Having great coverage, being aggressive, standing in front, and moving your feet, it’s doing all of that,” Tucker said. “It’s the conference finals. You can’t just do one thing. It’s two, three, four, five things in a single possession sometimes. Whatever it takes. We finally got that effort in the second half.”

Added Butler, “Whenever we let our defense dictate our offense, we’re a much better team. We get stops. We get into the open floor. We whip that ball around to our shooters. That’s the style of basketball we call Miami Heat basketball. Gritty, dog-like, and worried about getting stops instead of worried about getting buckets.”

For the Heat, given the circumstances, losing Game 1 would have been a disastrous start to the series. And in the early moments Tuesday night, they looked overmatched by an undermanned team.

Instead, the Heat regained their composure and aggression. And they hope the third-quarter explosion is indicative of what else is to come.

“More than anything, it just shows us what we’re capable of,” Butler said. “It just reminds me that we can do it. I see it on this piece of paper. I lived it. I expect us to be able to do that in every quarter from here on out.”

Nicole Yang can be reached at nicole.yang@globe.com.Follow her on Twitter @nicolecyang.