MIAMI — The Celtics were not alarmed after dropping Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Heat. They know they have become a dominant road team, and they know their setback occurred without two of their leaders.
And on Thursday they welcomed back Al Horford and Marcus Smart, and once again looked like the team that pulverized competition for much of the second half of this season, as they rolled to a 127-102 win and tied this series at 1. Game 3 will be played at TD Garden on Saturday night, and now Boston has ripped home-court advantage away from Miami.
Smart finished with 24 points, 12 assists, and 9 rebounds after missing Game 1 because of a foot sprain. Jayson Tatum scored 27 points. Horford, whose return was a surprise after he entered COVID-19 protocol Tuesday afternoon, had 10 points. Derrick White missed the game to attend the birth of his child.
Jimmy Butler had 29 points to lead Miami, but he had little help. Heat forward P.J. Tucker left the game in the third quarter because of a knee contusion and did not return.
The Celtics fell behind, 18-8, in the first quarter, but then closed the quarter with a 27-6 run and never trailed by double digits again.
Observations from the game:
▪ The Celtics led by 32 points with a little more than six minutes left before they began subbing out all of their starters. That did not seem like the smartest approach. Even worse, Smart, who just recovered from a quadriceps contusion and the foot sprain, was out there with this group.
▪ Butler torched the Celtics for 41 points in Game 1, but life is a bit different when a Defensive Player of the Year returns and gets that assignment. Smart is one of the few players who can stand up against Butler’s tough, physical style of play, and he did a strong job in the opening quarter. And with both Horford and Smart back on the floor, there were no mismatches for Miami’s offense to hunt on switches. Butler took 18 free throws in Game 1 but mustered just three in the first half of Game 2.
▪ Smart looked like a player who was giddy to be back on the court after missing what would have been one of the biggest games of his career. He was involved in everything the Celtics were doing at both ends of the floor early. Even though he missed his first four shots, he was a net positive, from his defense on Butler to carving into open space and dishing out four assists. Smart added a 3-pointer for good measure, too. Smart has taken a beating during these playoffs, so the rest may have done him some good in general.
▪ A 3-pointer by Max Strus gave the Heat an 18-8 lead, continuing their momentum from Game 1. But it did not last. The Celtics blitzed the Heat with a barrage of 3-pointers, with six players combining to connect on nine, the most in a first quarter in franchise history, according to NBC Sports Boston. When a team is rolling like that, the confidence from the lower-stress shots is noticeable. The ball movement wasn’t bad either.
▪ The most impressive part of Boston’s first-quarter surge, which eventually stretched to 27-6, was that most of it occurred with Jayson Tatum on the bench after picking up his second foul on a charge. the Celtics outscored the Heat by 14 points as Tatum sat for the rest of the quarter, a huge win.
▪ Speaking of Tatum, six minutes passed before he even took a shot. Then he went to the bench soon after. But he emphatically entered the chat in the second quarter, when he erupted for 17 points in his signature way, mixing in tough 3-pointers with balancing-act drives to the rim. His six-turnover third quarter in Game 1 faded quickly.
▪ During the second quarter Payton Pritchard, who might be generously listed at 6 feet 1 inch, danced in the paint and hit a tough midrange shot over the 6-5 Tyler Herro. Then as Pritchard ran back downcourt he lowered his hand toward the ground in the universal “he’s too small” basketball gesture of disrespect. Ouch. Later, Grant Williams did the same to Tucker, who is probably not the right person to poke, to be honest.
▪ Smart was the only Celtic who shot less than 67 percent from the field during the first half, helping Boston take a 70-45 lead to the break. That’s really all you need to know. The Celtics made 12 of 19 3-pointers during the first half and closed it with a 62-27 run after falling behind by 10.
▪ The Heat chipped away at a 29-point deficit and pulled within 17 late in the third quarter, then had a chance to get even closer. But Smart, who’s actually been a calming influence this season, came up with a steal and then sat down Strus with a nasty step-back before hitting a jumper. The Heat never threatened again.
▪ New Hampshire native Duncan Robinson is a clear liability on defense, but if Miami’s 3-point shooting struggles linger in this series, it might need him. Robinson hit 20 3-pointers over six games in the 2020 Eastern Conference finals between these teams. He checked in late in the third quarter with Miami down by 19. The game was close to over then, but it felt like it was Heat coach Erick Spoelstra’s attempt to give him some confidence and see if Robinson will have a place in this series. But he missed three 3-pointers in a row.