The Celtics spent the past two days basking in the glory of one good game, hearing all the murmurs they are more talented than the Miami Heat and they should start making plans for a June trip to San Francisco for the NBA Finals.
It’s inexcusable for the Celtics to treat Game 3 as they did Saturday night. They were pathetic in the first 22 minutes and then when they finally started playing with the passion this game deserved, they were burned by countless careless mistakes and just plain disrespectful basketball.
They deserved to lose. They took Miami too lightly, thinking the Heat wouldn’t come up with a wrinkle or two in game adjustments. They lost, 109-103, in a performance they should be ashamed of, and now they have handed home-court advantage and momentum right back to the Heat.
The Celtics never led, trailed by as many as 26, allowed a 7-0 run when they cut the deficit to 1 with 2 minutes, 40 seconds left, and then reverted back to barking at officials, making unintelligent plays and turning the ball over repeatedly to ruin any chance of a late-game rally.
Jaylen Brown scored 40 points, but he also turned the ball over seven times and might as well have just handed the ball to defenders in certain sequences. The carelessness with which the Celtics played this game was a major concern considering the importance and the moment.
“I did a [bleep] job taking care of the ball,” Brown said. “We didn’t come out with enough intensity and we were looking around at each other. Yeah, it is a little bit [disappointing], but we knew who Miami is. That’s what they pride themselves on is physicality. If we want to win this series, we’ve got to match that intensity. We’ve just got to man up. We didn’t come out with the right intensity or we didn’t come out with the same intensity as them as a unit, and it showed. They came out all connected with urgency.”
It’s the Eastern Conference Finals. Three more wins and they play for the Larry O’Brien Trophy with an opportunity for immortality and they fall behind 46-20?
“Hard to say because it wasn’t just myself,” coach Ime Udoka said when asked why they didn’t see a Miami response coming. “It was the players speaking up, as well. [The Heat] said it in the media. They got embarrassed at their place. They were going to come out and up their physicality, and it’s no different than what they did in the third quarter of Game 1. We didn’t think that it was all of a sudden going to be an easy series and they were going to roll over.
“We bounced back from Game 1 to Game 2 and they were going to do the same that and we had to match that and came out flat for whatever reason. But it wasn’t just myself, it was Marcus [Smart], Jayson [Tatum], Jaylen and Al [Horford] all speaking up at shootarounds and at the meetings saying be prepared, knowing they’re going to come out with their best hit. For whatever reason, we didn’t match that to start the game.”
The Celtics were all words and no action in Game 3. As well as Miami played, the Celtics had to be prepared for adjustments from coach Erik Spoelstra. He was loose before the game, joking in his pregame media session. He knew his team would punch first and the Celtics would play the same way they did in Game 2 because it worked, and he was right.
Tatum never adequately responded to Miami’s blitzing defense and did not record a field goal in the second half. He also left the game with a stinger in his right shoulder but it can’t be used as an excuse. Like Game 3 of the Milwaukee series, Tatum was mysteriously timid and passive, trying to get himself untracked with 3-pointers and he missed six of seven.
When the shot isn’t going down, Tatum has to consistently find ways to impact the game and recently he has. But he appeared psyched out by Miami’s defense and he either tossed lazy passes or tried diving into triple teams that resulted in missed shots or turnovers.
An optimistic theory is the Celtics played their worst game in months and still lost only by 6. But the Heat played the second half without star forward Jimmy Butler, who left with knee inflammation. That offered opportunity for a rally from a 15-point halftime deficit but the same issues crept up. The Celtics couldn’t defend Bam Adebayo, who looked like Bubble Bam with how he dominated the paint with 31 points and they made several defensive mistakes and other times Miami just got lucky.
But the Celtics didn’t deserve good fortune with the way they started. A sellout crowd, several celebrities including LL Cool J in the house, and they played as if they had nothing at stake, as if they expected Miami to relent when the series was tied 1-1.
Inasmuch as Game 2 was an impressive win, it was that, just one win. It meant nothing more than that. The Celtics again let Miami manhandle them, play with more physicality and desperation. Miami felt embarrassed after Game 2 and seized the chance to punch first.
The Celtics somewhat restored order in the second half by shooting 54.3 percent and increasing their defensive intensity. Yet, they also committed 13 turnovers in that span and got nothing from Tatum, who is expected to be named to the All-NBA first or second team this coming week.
“I felt like I left the guys hanging tonight,” Tatum said. “That’s on me. Six turnovers, no field goals in the second half, that’s unacceptable. I’ve got to play better. This time of the season, everything on the line, I gotta play better.”
Pride has to take over here. The Celtics aren’t good enough to rely on past accomplishments, especially when they haven’t won anything yet.