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Game 1 | Heat 118, Celtics 107

‘They just came out and imposed their will.’ Heat crush Celtics in third and take Game 1

Boston Celtics forward Grant Williams (12) has his shot blocked by Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) during the third quarter of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

MIAMI — Celtics guard Marcus Smart was on the bench, pulling the younger teammates aside and barking instructions when he could. He was also in street clothes, sidelined in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals because of a foot sprain.

Forward Al Horford could not even offer that level of assistance, since he was back at the team hotel after entering COVID-19 protocols about four hours before tipoff.

So the Celtics, already drained from a grueling seven-game series against the Bucks, had to find their way without two starters. For one half, they made it seem that they could push forward anyway. But then the third quarter began, and an eight-point halftime lead vanished so quickly, it was as if it never existed.


The Heat started the second half with a crushing 22-2 run that dazed Boston and ultimately surged to a 118-107 win that gave them early control of this series.

“It was strictly from a physicality standpoint,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “It wasn’t anything different that they did. They just came out and imposed their will.”

No one imposed it more fiercely than Miami’s Jimmy Butler. The Celtics started this series by vanquishing Kevin Durant and the Nets. Then they disposed of another former MVP in Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, meanwhile, continued to ascend and entered this series as the headliner.

But Butler has been quietly putting together a dominant playoff run of his own, and there is nothing quiet about it anymore. The 32-year-old forward had his way with the Celtics at both ends of the floor and crafted a stat line that included no holes: 41 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, and 3 blocks. He did it all.

“He’s comfortable,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. “He’s very comfortable right now, and we’ve got to do a better job of breaking that rhythm that he’s in. That’s it. We’ve got to take the challenge.”


For both Butler and the Celtics, the night is best summed up by one brief third quarter segment. After the Heat used a 16-2 run to flip an eight-point halftime deficit into an eight-point lead, Udoka called a timeout, and he was furious.

It was a chance for the Celtics to settle themselves and punch back. Instead, Butler sliced into a passing lane and picked off an offering by Tatum before rushing upcourt and scoring. Then, just 13 seconds later, he did it again, this time soaring in for a dunk that made this arena shake.

“During that time they were the harder-playing team,” Brown said. “They were beating us at 50/50 balls. It just seemed like everything was going their way and we were standing around watching, and that’s not what we do. We’ve got to get in there, get in the mix, be more physical, match their physicality, match their intensity, and we didn’t.”

Those miscues were certainly the low point of that third quarter for Tatum, but it didn’t get much better, either. He committed six turnovers in the period and was held without a field goal. He finished the game with 29 points, but just eight came in the second half, and his gaffes left an ever bigger mark.

“I’ll be the first one to say I’ll take the blame for that,” Tatum said. “I’ve got to lead better. I’ve got to play better, especially in those moments. I’m just looking forward to responding next game.”


Game 2 will be played Thursday and Boston’s available roster for that night remains unclear. Smart had been listed as questionable due to his foot sprain, so the team is hopeful two more days of rest will be sufficient, but there are no guarantees. And Horford, who is now in COVID-19 protocols for the third time this season, will likely be sidelined unless he can produce two negative tests in time.

But no one will feel sorry for these Celtics. They just squeaked past a Bucks team that was missing All-Star forward Khris Middleton for the entire series, and the Heat are without six-time All-Star Kyle Lowry.

After this loss, though, Boston’s level of concern did not seem especially high. It quieted the crowd with a dominant first half, outscored the Heat in three of the four quarters, and even made a run after falling behind by 20 early in the fourth, trimming the deficit to single digits before eventually running out of time.

Boston knows it needs to win just one game in Miami to win this series, and it provided enough reason to believe that three more tries, if needed, should be enough.

“We’ve got a lot of tough guys in our locker room that won’t back down,” Brown said. “We were without two of them tonight, but we’ve got a tough team, resilient team.”


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.