MIAMI — That third quarter thing happened again, when the Miami Heat decided to begin the second half as the more physical and hungrier team and it was up to the Celtics to respond or likely get blown out.
While they have been reiterating how much they learned from last season’s playoff run and promised to rely on their experience, Celtics faithful wouldn’t really find out whether lessons resonated until adversity occurred.
That was the case Friday at FTX Arena, as Miami entered the third quarter determined to rally from an 8-point halftime deficit by drawing fouls, using their physicality and relying on the crafty Kyle Lowry to come back.
They did, taking a 2-point lead on two Lowry free throws with 6 minutes, 3 seconds left in the third period. It was at that moment, the Celtics stormed back, getting a fortunate break with Bam Adebayo leaving with his fourth foul and then Jayson Tatum escaping his offensive doldrums with three buckets in a 20-6 quarter-ending run.
The Celtics were challenged by their Eastern Conference rivals, but they proved to be the better team, at least at this point. Their 111-104 win was an important one because it occurred away from comfortable TD Garden and against a team that before last year’s conference finals had dominated them with toughness.
This time was different. The Celtics have learned from their past. They are better than they were this time last season. They are determined not to start slow, not to fall into bad habits or enter this season lackadaisical even though it would be understandable if they did.
The Heat had all the motivation. They were eliminated by the Celtics in seven games. They were one Jimmy Butler 3-pointer from advancing to the Finals. They had just been beaten Wednesday by the Chicago Bulls. Yet, it was the Celtics who led for 35 of the final 38 minutes, sealing the game with an 8-4 run after Miami cut the deficit to five with 4 minutes, 12 seconds left.
“Those are times we have to be a little more stronger with the basketball, make better decisions because each and every night, teams are going to try to be aggressive, depending on how (officials) call the game,” Jaylen Brown said. “I thought we did good tonight.”
After combining for 70 points in the season-opening win against the Philadelphia 76ers, Brown and Jayson Tatum teamed for 57, including 32 of the Celtics’ 52 in the second half. The notion they can no longer play together dissipated long ago. The next challenge is being more consistent in these types of high-pressure situations against quality clubs.
The Heat didn’t make many offseason moves. They lost P.J. Tucker, who signed with the 76ers, but they are a veteran team with a healthy Tyler Herro, who singlehandedly kept Miami close with his playmaking and shooting. He finished with 25 points but just four in the fourth quarter.
The Celtics’ key was keeping Jimmy Butler off the free throw line — a real issue during the Eastern Conference finals — and winning decisively when Adebayo was off the floor. The Celtics were a plus-27 with the All-Star on the bench.
“Probably this time last year, we may have struggled (in the second half),” Tatum said. “It’s just a learning process. We’ve been through that situation enough times and learned from it. I thought it was great for us on the road, early in the season, in a tough environment against a pretty good team to answer that on our own.”
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla experimented with an interesting concept during that third-quarter run. He refused to call a timeout until Adebayo’s streaking, two-handed dunk tied the game at 69. But the Celtics’ play had been slipping for several possessions before.
He wanted to see how his team responded to this adversity without the aid of a quick timeout and team gathering. He wanted his players to figure out their issues on the fly.
“The game will tell you want to do and at the same time you have to assess why a team is going on a run and what we can do in order to execute,” Mazzulla said. “Like I said, they’re very experienced and mature. They’ve been through a lot together and I love watching these guys just kind of figure it out. I believed we could execute.”
Mazzulla’s belief in this roster is apparent, and the belief in themselves is growing. The Celtics could not have asked for a better start — two victories over conference foes, finishing these games out strong, and overcoming adversity with depth.
The Celtics bench all finished Friday with at least a plus-7 in their minutes.
“From the top to the bottom, everybody has the same goal in mind,” Tatum said. “I’ve talked about getting to the championship and losing was the worst feeling ever. Regardless of individual accolades, all I care about is how many games we win and getting back to that point of winning a championship. Everybody is on the same mind-set of doing whatever it takes to win, do what’s best for the team. Once you do that, everything will shine individually anyway, that’s just how it happens.”
Two games in, the Celtics haven’t skipped any steps in their growth process, and they were definitely tested Friday. It’s also apparent the Celtics have so much more improvement left to make, but they’re talented enough to win consistently while they’re in this maturation process.