MIAMI — The Celtics faithful should have learned by now to trust the tutelage of coach Ime Udoka after losses. Despite the avalanche of doubt created after their second-half Game 1 performance, the Celtics have found ways to respond from disheartening losses all season.
On Thursday at FTX Arena, the Celtics exemplified their resilience and bounce back on a big stage. Not only was the team uplifted by the returns of Marcus Smart and Al Horford, Udoka developed a revised game plan to smother Miami’s shooters and then the Celtics offense returned to form with a brilliant shooting display.
The Celtics response was a 35-point first-half swing and an impressive 127-102 Game 2 win, sending Boston back to TD Garden with home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference finals.
After a putrid third quarter Tuesday cost them Game 1, the Celtics got healthy and then played more passionately on defense and with improved execution on offense.
“I think we were upset with how that third quarter went and specifically how we got out-toughed,” Udoka said. “It wasn’t a lot of schemes or defensive changes. They just came out and punked us that third quarter. [We] knew if we matched their physicality we could be better.”
The opening game performance could be attributed to fatigue or lack of two starters, but again, that would discount the Game 2 performance. The players who played in Game 2 were just better, and after an early timeout when the Heat jumped to an 18-8 lead, the defensive emphasis changed.
Boston’s defenders were dropping far too deeply on switches in Game 1 and early in Game 2, allowing open 3-pointers. Max Strus hit an early pair along with Gabe Vincent. After the timeout, with Robert Williams being admonished for giving Strus too much space to shoot, the Celtics adjusted, challenging screens and clogging air space. That 3-pointer 4 minutes, 31 seconds into the game was Strus’s final points.
Also, Udoka removed Robert Williams, who had trouble closing out to shooters in favor of Grant Williams, who helped the Celtics defend the three better and also spread the floor offensively.
“Just wake up,” Udoka said he told the team during that early timeout. “We were slow to react for the first few shots, switching too low on their shooters. Just a simple message that we need to wake up and react a little quicker. We cleaned that up pretty quickly and finished the quarter well.”
On a couple of occasions, Smart, who sparked the Celtics with 24 points, did a pair of 360 spins to avoid losing Jimmy Butler, a primary focus of the Boston defense. Butler’s 29 points was 12 fewer than Game 1 and 16 of those were scored in the third period when Miami unsuccessfully tried rallying from a 25-point halftime deficit.
The Celtics did not need to be perfect in that third quarter but considerably better than the 39-14 trouncing from Tuesday night. The players maintained their poise, withstood a 17-5 Miami run and then countered with a run of their own to end any suspense.
The Celtics played with the type poise they displayed in all but one quarter of the Milwaukee series. They returned to being themselves.
“We can’t let them outhustle us, beat us to loose balls, offensive rebounds, where they killed us in transition and turnovers,” Smart said. “So we cut those down, and our defense did what it does. We just wanted to come in and be the harder-playing team and we did.”
The key was offering more resistance to Butler and also shutting down his teammates. No other Heat player scored more than 14 points and Miami, besides Gabe Vincent, were 6 of 26 from the 3-point line. The Celtics protected the paint and also contested Miami’s shooters, reducing their offense to Butler taking on the defense by himself.
“It’s not just their approach,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They played well. I wouldn’t say it was because they had a great desperation or sense of urgency. It wasn’t a matter of us not wanting or us not on edge. We really got outplayed in a lot of areas. You know, defensively, [their] shot-making, that got us out of what we normally do and that’s what shot-making can do. If you start the game 9 of 11 from three, that will get you out of your habits pretty quickly.”
A sense of confidence has been built in Udoka as the season has progressed. He game plans especially well after losses. The Celtics seemingly play with more passion and pride in these situations. And Thursday was a team effort. They collectively dominated the Miami Heat and now return home with the momentum and the edge.
This is not a surprise. The Celtics have bounced back all season, but what is impressive is they are doing this in these crucial situations with the season at stake. Going home down 0-2 would have been difficult. But the Celtics proved, unlike two years ago, that they can counter Miami’s toughness with some of their own.
“Since I’ve been in the NBA, the difference between the years we’ve been really good and not so good is just how you respond,” Tatum said. “You’re not going to win every game you play but the sign of a good team is how you respond after losses, especially tough ones. It just kind of shows the character of the group and we’ve done a really good job most of the year responding after tough losses and situations.”