fb-pixel Skip to main content
chad finn

Why were the first four games of this Celtics-Heat series so noncompetitive?

The TD Garden scoreboard reflected another blowout in progress as the Celtics raced to a big early lead in Game 4.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Mike Breen hasn’t seen it all in his 30 years broadcasting NBA games, but he has seen enough that not much bewilders him.

But when the Celtics roared out to a 57-33 halftime lead in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference finals series with the Heat Monday — the fourth straight game in which a team seized at least a 20-point lead — Breen was as baffled as the rest of us.

“There will probably be a lot of people happy to hear me say this, but I’m at a loss for words,” said Breen with more than a hint of incredulity to analysts Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy before the start of the third quarter of ESPN’s broadcast of Game 4. “What is going on in this series?”

Advertisement



Breen’s question was one every NBA fan, casual or serious, has likely found themselves asking at one point or another during this matchup of the top two seeds in the conference.

The showdown between the No. 1-seeded Heat and No. 2 Celtics was expected to be highly competitive, and in one sense it has been. The teams were tied at two wins apiece entering the crucial Game 5 Wednesday night. Either team would be a worthy representative of the East in the NBA Finals.

Jayson Tatum has been at the center of several back-and-forth games over the course of this playoff series.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

But strangely, on a game-to-game basis, the series has hardly been competitive at all.

In Game 1, the Celtics led, 54-46, at halftime before the Heat overwhelmed them in the third quarter. The Heat held the Celtics to 2-for-15 shooting in the frame, and outscored them, 39-14, en route to a 118-107 win in Miami. The Heat’s lead peaked at 20 points, when Tyler Herro hit three free throws to make it 96-76 early in the fourth quarter.

In Game 2, the Celtics bounced back with an impressive performance, which has become one of their trademarks this postseason; they’re 5-0 in games following a loss. They trailed by 10 early, but over the final 18 minutes of the first half they outscored the Heat, 60-21, to take a 25-point halftime lead (70-45). The Celtics led by 34 points at one point in the fourth quarter and glided to a 127-102 win.

Advertisement



The momentum from that emboldening victory did not carry over to the first game at TD Garden. The Celtics played perhaps their sloppiest game of the season — or at least since the since their season took a sharp turn for the better in January after an 18-21 start.

In Game 3, the Celtics turned the ball over 24 times while the Heat collected 19 steals. Miami took a 39-13 lead in the first quarter and — hey, here’s at least a little suspense — held on for dear life down the stretch as the Celtics cut the deficit to 1 late in the fourth before succumbing, 109-103.

There have been times in this series where Miami's Jimmy Butler has been transcendent. There are times where he has struggled. What will the rest of the series bring for the Heat star?Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

And then there was Game 4, which the Celtics put away immediately, jumping to an 18-1 lead less than seven minutes into the first quarter, taking a 24-point lead into halftime that sparked Breen’s incredulous query, and never allowing the Heat even a hint of a rally in a 102-82 thumping.

Typically, NBA playoff series among evenly matched teams have ebbs and flows. With these teams from game to game, it has been more like dueling tsunamis.

Advertisement



The only other relatively recent playoff series that has come close to having such drastic shifts was the 2016 Finals between the Cavaliers and Warriors. One team or the other held at least a 20-point lead in each of the first three games of that series. The Warriors led Game 1 by 6 points after three quarters before building their lead to 20 in the fourth. Golden State won Game 2 by 33 points, and the Cavaliers took Game 3 by 30. But Game 4 was a taut 11-point Warriors win in which they pulled away late after trailing by 5 at halftime.

Answers as to why this Celtics-Heat matchup has been the most noncompetitive playoff series anyone can remember have been hard to come by. Player health and the inconsistency of lineups must be part of it. The Celtics played without Al Horford in Game 1, Marcus Smart in Games 1 and 4, and Robert Williams in Game 3. The Heat lost Jimmy Butler halfway through Game 3 (but still held on to win) and Herro missed Game 4. The physicality of the series is taking a toll.

Buzzwords like “energy” and “intensity” recur in the vaguer explanations. Jackson answered Breen’s question by saying, “Great defense and inconsistent energy and effort from teams that quite honestly didn’t show up when it mattered most.” Van Gundy said the teams need to “set a tone right off the bat.” He added, “Everyone says experience matters. Your experience should tell you that the team that lost is going to come out hard and heated. You’ve got to match that.”

Advertisement



Celtics coach Ime Udoka and his Heat counterpart, Erik Spoelstra, were asked about the wild point differentials after Game 4. Udoka agreed with Van Gundy’s theory that the team coming off a loss “has more urgency,” but didn’t elaborate much beyond that. Spoelstra said he thought the blowouts in a way were a confirmation of the teams’ competitiveness.

“Sometimes when you have two really competitive teams, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a 1-point game,” he said. “It means that it can be flammable either way. Both teams are ignitable.”

These tough, well-coached, well-rounded teams should be playing tighter games. But if you’re one to believe trends are predictive, it’s not a matter of whether a team will go up 20 points in Game 5, but which of them will be the one to ignite this time, and which will go cold.


Chad Finn can be reached at chad.finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.