As we cross the bridge from the Heat’s smackdown of the Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals to Thursday night’s Game 2, can we get one thing straight first?
It’s absurd to take any solace in the fact that the Celtics “won” three quarters Tuesday night. Absurd to the point that I can’t believe the usually clear-eyed Ime Udoka even acknowledged that his team outscored the Heat in three of the four quarters, as if it carried some sort of relevance.
The third quarter was such a massive debacle — the Heat left the Celtics in a smoldering heap, outscoring them, 39-14, to turn an 8-point halftime deficit into a comfy 17-point advantage — that it renders moot anything positive that happened before or after.
And it’s not as if the Celtics tore it up in the fourth quarter, either, even though they outscored the Heat, 31-25. After cutting the Heat lead from 20 to 10, the Celtics couldn’t get a stop when they needed one.
To reiterate: Banners don’t fly for Quarters Won. Let’s not hear about that goofy pretend metric ever again.
As for the larger picture … well, if you for some reason didn’t respect the Heat coming into this series to the degree that you did the Nets of Durant or the Bucks of Giannis, I imagine that has changed, yes?
Some of the names are different, and some players are in different roles, but the Heat delivered a reminder that they are just as tough, well-coached, and relentless as they were two years ago when they dismantled a lesser Celtics team in the conference finals in the Orlando bubble.
If anyone thought they were a fluke No. 1 seed, or at least a weaker one, Tuesday was a wake-up call, delivered in blunt force in that third quarter — and it was sly, cantankerous ol’ Jimmy Butler who did most of the delivering.
Butler scored his 41 points with ruthless old-school efficiency, knocking down 12 of 19 field goal attempts and 17 of 18 free throws, with just two attempts (both misses) from 3-point territory. He’s an easy player to dislike if he’s playing against your team; he’s an expert at baiting less-experienced players into silly fouls; and carries himself as if he’s an A++-level Star Among NBA Stars even though he’s realistically an A-minus as someone who has never finished higher than 10th in MVP voting.
Watching Butler systematically dismantle the Celtics defense in the second half doubled as a reminder of how far Jaylen Brown has to go. Brown finished with 24 points, 14 coming in the quasi-rally in the fourth quarter, but the scoring belies how inefficient his performance was. He missed four free throws, constantly got himself into trouble with his dribble, and was frequently late on defensive rotations. It’s time to tighten up his game, now.
As for the Celtics’ best player, it all started so well for Jayson Tatum … and it’s immensely frustrating how it turned out. Tatum carried over his extraordinary play from the Bucks series into the first half, scoring 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting. He buried some high-degree-of-difficulty shots, but that’s not out of the ordinary for him, and the Heat had no answers.
The second half was a different story. Tatum was more complicit than anyone in the third-quarter collapse, turning the ball over six times, including on three straight possessions when the Heat were finishing off a 22-2 run to start the period.
With the Celtics down just 6, he was stripped by Max Strus, who took it the other way for a dunk; had a pass stolen by Butler, who hit a turnaround jumper on the other end; then had the ball swiped away again by Butler, who converted a dunk.
It was a stunningly sloppy sequence — the Heat clearly believe they can take advantage of the Celtics’ casual-to-careless ball-handling habits — and it was made worse by Tatum’s griping to officials at the expense of getting back on defense.
Tatum is a wonderful player, a true superstar now, but that might have been the most embarrassing two-minute stretch of poor play and behavior in his career. If he wants the kind of respect from officials that Butler receives, he needs to knock off the constant carping. It’s counterproductive, and in the case of Grant Williams, it has become contagious.
None of this is meant to suggest that the Celtics are doomed in this series. They did play well in the first half — even won a couple of quarters, I heard — even without starters Marcus Smart (foot) and Al Horford (health and safety protocol), two players who almost certainly would have helped calm matters before that third quarter got out of hand.
Robert Williams (18 points) looked like himself after missing the last four games of the Bucks series, and that is a huge development. And the Heat got excellent performances from players such as Gabe Vincent (17 points) who are likely to be inconsistent as the series plays on.
The Celtics know what they have to do. Play with poise. Protect the ball. Stop charging into traffic and forcing one-on-three plays. Close out on defense, and try your best to avoid switching Payton Pritchard onto Butler. Stop pausing to yowl when a call doesn’t go your way. Respect the Heat, but don’t back down from them.
It’s all doable. The Celtics still can win this series, and I still believe they will, provided that Smart and Horford are back soon. But they had better learn from what went down in Game 1. The Celtics have the more talented team, but as the Heat reminded everyone in the third quarter, they’re rather adept at taking what they want.