MIAMI — Let’s not go overboard. It’s only one game. I remember mocking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the mighty Lakers when the Larry Bird Celtics beat LA, 148-114, in Game 1 of the 1985 Finals. Those proud Lakers wound up winning that series in six, dancing on the fabled parquet while New England wept.
But here in the Hub of Hoop, there’ll be a temptation to get carried away after what we watched at FTX Arena Thursday night. Some of you no doubt are already dreaming of that Boston-Golden State matchup in the NBA Finals.
The 2021-22 Celtics vaporized the Miami Heat, 127-102, in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. Two days after a disheartening, shorthanded, 11-point loss, the Celtics (almost) got their whole team back and demolished a tough, worthy Miami team.
In an 18-minute stretch of the first half, the Celtics outscored the Heat, 60-21, to go from 10 points down to 29 points up.
Boston wound up making 20 of 40 threes as six players scored in double figures. Boston’s halftime lead (70-45) was the largest road playoff halftime margin in franchise history.
Think about that for a second. This is an organization that’s won 17 world championships. And now no doubt some folks are already dreaming of Boston-Golden State in the Finals. Slow down that train, please.
Buoyed by the returns of Marcus Smart (foot sprain) and Al Horford (COVID protocol), the Celtics submitted a dazzling display of 3-point prowess, making 9 of 11 from international waters in the first quarter and 12 of 19 in the first half. Every starter other than Smart shot at least 67 percent in the first half and two guys off the bench (Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard) made 7 of 9 shots. The Celts committed only nine turnovers.
So here’s the deal: Boston center Robert Williams III (three blocks) looks almost fully back from his meniscus surgery. Smart (24 points, 12 assists, 9 rebounds in 40 minutes) is back from the foot thing, and Horford (10 points) is back from the COVID shelf.
Oh, and Tatum (27 points) and Brown (24) look ready for prime time. In a big way. The two Jays at times appeared to be throwing the rock into an oil drum. From 5 feet away.
This is not a Green Team illusion/delusion. The Celtics have been the best team in the NBA since late January. They’ve won 37 of their last 48 (regular-season and playoff) games. They’ve only lost two straight once in that stretch, and that only happened because coach Ime Udoka didn’t have four starters at Toronto March 28.
And now they have their whole team.
“I couldn’t get out there [in Game 1] and help my teammates,’’ said Smart. “I had to sit there and watch us struggle the way we did.’’
“I’m grateful to have an opportunity to get back to the team,’’ said Horford. “This was a big win for us.’’
Game 2 was a gut-check game for Boston. The Celtics were undermanned in Tuesday’s loss, but also demonstrated some of their bad traits. They blew a 13-point, first-half lead. They got punked and badly outmuscled in the third. They got caught up with the officiating and stopped hustling back on defense. They let the Heat take over with a 22-2 stretch.
“I think we were upset from that,’’ said Udoka. “We were out-toughed. It reminded me of Milwaukee [Celtics lost Game 1 at home] a little bit.”
When they fell behind by 10 in the first quarter of Game 2 we wondered if this was going to be more of the same.
And then everything clicked.
Pritchard (10 points) came off the bench and started to fill it up. Grant Williams (19 points, 2 of 2 on threes) went back to being Steph Curry. Horford provided the adult leadership, Smart scrapped like a modern-day K.C. Jones/Dennis Johnson. Tatum and Brown were an aggregate 12 for 17 in the half.
The Heat didn’t quit. The Celtics went back to some of their bad habits and Miami fans got excited when the locals cut it to 17 late in the third. But the game was over. The lead was 96-71 at the end of three and back up to 30 early in the fourth.
It’s only one game, but it had to leave a mark on the Heat. It had to have made the 77-year-old Pat Riley wonder if the progeny of Red Auerbach are preparing to torture him one more time.
The Heat are estimable. This is a model organization. Riley is a legend and coach Erik Spoelstra is having a Hall of Fame career. Jimmy Butler (41 points in Game 1 ) is an 11-year veteran, a six-time All-Star and thinks he’s the best player in this series. Bam Adebayo would start for any team in the NBA.
But they have to be worried about coming into Boston after Game 2.
Here’s what former Celtic champion, current-day media star Kendrick Perkins tweeted: “A healthy Celtics team is just too damn good defensively. The communication, help and rotations are on another level. We can keep talking offense all we want, but ‘Defense win Championships.’’'
A healthy Celtics team is just to damn good defensively. The communication, help and rotations are on another level. We can keep talking offense all we want but “Defense win Championships” Carry the hell on…— Kendrick Perkins (@KendrickPerkins) May 20, 2022
Two hours before tipoff, Spoelstra was asked about the returns of Smart and Horford and said, “This is the team we were preparing for. It’s good. We don’t want to duck any kind of competition.’’
Then he had to duck and cover for an eye-popping 18-minute stretch of almost perfect Celtic basketball.
“We really got outplayed in a lot of areas,’’ Spoelstra said after the blowout. “We just have to figure some things out.’’
“It can’t get too much worse,’’ said Butler (29 points). “They whipped our tail on our home court.’’
Keep reminding yourself that’s it’s only one game.
But the last time the Celtics met the Warriors in the NBA Finals (1964), the starting centers were Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain (Guess who won in five games?).
In case you want to get started on any Finals story lines.
Correction: Because of a reporter’s error, the number of games played in the 1964 NBA championship was incorrect in previous versions of this story. The Celtics won in five games.