There were a few beautiful aspects that emanated from the Celtics’ rather ugly and rugged Game 4 victory over the Miami Heat to even the series.
The Celtics controlled this game from the opening tip with their defense, stifling the Heat from scoring in their half-court offense. Miami looked futile Monday, passing the ball around the perimeter seeking opportunities against Boston’s pitbull defenders that never occurred.
Exceptional offense wasn’t necessary Monday as it was in Game 2. The Celtics extinguished the Heat, 102-82, because they did everything else exceptionally, a complete turnaround from the Game 3 debacle in which they handed the Heat an early 26-point lead with a litany of turnovers.
The 3-pointers weren’t splashing. Shots weren’t falling all that often, but the Celtics attacked the paint to get the free throw line, hit key shots when it counted and Jayson Tatum atoned for his Game 3 disappearance with 31 points in 34 minutes for a plus-37.
This response wasn’t surprising considering the Celtics’ record this season after losses. But these reactions to losses are usually generated by stellar offense, such as Game 2. The Celtics are world beaters when the 3-pointer is falling and the ball is whipping around the perimeter to the open man.
But Miami’s physicality made it difficult for the Celtics to play pretty offense to get this must-win. The Celtics shot 39.8 percent and missed 26 of 34 3-pointers and yet jumped out to an 18-1 lead and led by as many as 32.
They had to match Miami’s forceful play, and they had to impose their will quickly. On the game’s opening play, Miami center Bam Adebayo attacked the paint as he did so many times in Game 3. This time, guard Derrick White reached in and stripped Adebayo, leading to a transition floater to open the scoring.
Adebayo, whose activity and aggressiveness has been critical in these Heat-Celtics matchups, finished with 9 points on 3-for-5 shooting. He was blitzed each time he touched the ball, a testament to the emphasis on containing his scoring off the dribble.
Helplessly, at times, Adebayo looked to feed the ball to Miami shooters, but those shooters couldn’t get off shots. Max Strus, who canned the key 3-pointer in Game 3, finished scoreless on seven shots in 15 minutes. Kyle Lowry, who sparked Miami’s offense by pushing the pace in Game 3, scored 3 points in 21 minutes.
What’s more, the Miami starters were a combined 7-for-36 shooting with 18 points. No starter scored in double figures, and the Heat looked befuddled in their half-court offense. The Celtics may have found something defensively that could impact the rest of the series, and they have proven they can stop Miami when they take care of the ball.
“We said that it wasn’t our best offensive night, but defensively we were obviously elite tonight for the most part, guarded their three-point shooters very well,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “Like I mentioned, 18 points from their starters, so we came out with the right focus on that end. And we got room to grow still, and that’s the thing with us. We can always rely on our defense. We’ve won several games this year doing that when our shots aren’t falling, and to hold them to in the 30s for basically three quarters, high-level defense, and we can do that even if our shots are not falling. It’s just mainly taking care of the ball, not letting them get anything easy and kind of wearing on them mentally.”
The second key aspect was the ball security. The Celtics committed just three turnovers in the first half, and none in the second period. Celtics turnovers spark Miami’s fastbreak offense, meaning the Heat get easy points when the Celtics make those mistakes.
If the Celtics don’t turn over the ball, the Heat have to mostly go against Boston’s half-court defense, which is what they have struggled with the entire series. So the method for victory is simple, but the Celtics have to be focused enough to carry it out consistently.
“Urgency. That was a focal point coming into this game, was just have a sense of urgency on both ends of the floor, from start to finish,” Tatum said. “Really starting the game better obviously than we did last game. That’s something that we talked about and something that we executed tonight.
“I think obviously it’s 2-2, so it’s kind of like a new series, best of three. I think we have to have that mind-set going into Game 5, that it is a must-win game, because tonight was essentially something like that. Everybody knew it. We could all feel it. I think that showed in the way we came out.”
The Celtics’ recipe to reach the NBA Finals is pretty simple: Reduce mistakes, play relentless defense and move the ball. On Monday, it didn’t make a difference that shots weren’t falling because they were so dominant defensively and used their aggression to get to the free throw line. It also didn’t hurt that Robert Williams returned to add a rim protector and lob threat.
The shotmaking was ghastly at times, but it was the Celtics’ most satisfying win because they played a complete game, overwhelming the heat with their defensive versatility, aggressiveness, and focus.