When the Celtics’ defense is settled, bodies are in front of bodies, and opponents have to try to figure things out from there. They tend to look as if they are playing in deep sand. It’s a miserable experience, and Boston relishes it.
But there are ways around it. The best way is to just steal the ball and run. The Heat did that 19 times in their Game 3 win, and suddenly Boston’s defense didn’t look so fearsome.
The Celtics have control over this issue, however. If they take care of the ball at their end, it allows them to do what they do best at the other. That’s what happened in Game 4 on Monday night.
The Heat were forced to orchestrate their attack in half-court sets, and it was not pretty. The Celtics pushed them back at the point of attack, welcomed back the shot-deterring Robert Williams in the paint, and simply smothered Miami’s sets time after time.
More than eight minutes passed before the Heat even converted a field goal, and even though there was a long way to go, this dominant 102-82 win had already begun to feel like a formality.
“We have a prideful team, one of the best defensive teams in the league, as well as individuals,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said, “and they heard some of the things that were said and took pride in those matchups.”
There are plenty of examples of the Heat’s offensive disarray, but here are a few: Their starters combined for just 18 points, and none finished in double figures. Jimmy Butler, who overpowered the Celtics and took 18 foul shots in a Game 1 win, did not go to the free-throw line once in Game 4.
Bam Adebayo, who was unstoppable in transition in Game 3, seemed to have no interest in challenging Williams on Monday and attempted just two shots in the first half, when Miami did not register a second-chance point.
All of this transpired as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Smart, watched from the bench in street clothes, sidelined because of a sprained ankle.
There is little question Boston has been the more dominant team during this series. The Heat have outscored the Celtics in 3 of 16 quarters, including the fourth Monday, when starters from both teams were already done for the night because of the lopsided score.
Still, the only tally that truly matters is this series is tied at 2, and the Heat came to Boston and regained home-court advantage. Game 5 will be played in Miami on Wednesday night.
So far, momentum for each team has been halted suddenly, with each win followed by a demoralizing and one-sided loss.
“Sometimes, when you have two really competitive teams, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a one-point game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It means that it can be flammable either way.”
Jayson Tatum had 31 points and 8 rebounds for the Celtics, shaking off his sloppy Game 3 in which he made 3 of 14 shots and committed six turnovers. To his credit, he has generally not let poor performances linger.
“Regardless if I have 10 points or 46 points, the next day is the next day, and whatever happened, happened,” Tatum said. “I’m a big believer in, you can’t change what happened.”
Derrick White started in place of Smart and gave the Celtics a jolt at the start. He made his first three shots as everyone else in the game combined to go 0 for 14. And on defense, he did his best to have an impact similar to the menacing defender he was replacing.
“If I was going to fail, I was going to do it aggressively and just try to get back to how I play,” said White, who entered the night 1 for 6 in this series. “Obviously, got off to a good start, and just tried to just keep it going for 48 minutes.”
Typically, a romp of this magnitude requires some scorching shooting. But that wasn’t the case for the Celtics, who made 39.7 percent of their shots and 8 of 34 3-pointers. Their defense ensured it did not matter.
Victor Oladipo came off the bench and scored 23 points for the Heat, but the good news ended there. Miami’s starters combined to go 7 for 36 from the field and 1 for 10 from the 3-point line, and they attempted just five free throws.
The mess was most visible at the start. The Heat, who were without injured guard Tyler Herro, combined to miss their first 14 shots, and before some fans had even come back from the popcorn line, the Celtics had staked themselves to an 18-1 lead.
“They came out,” Spoelstra said, “and jumped us.”
The Celtics’ lead swelled to as many as 34 points and never dipped below double digits again.