It seemed that the Celtics had done enough to stabilize their night and, perhaps, their season. They pushed back a few Heat rallies, and midway through the fourth quarter Friday, Grant Williams drilled a 3-pointer that stretched their lead to nine.
As Williams jogged back downcourt, he started barking in the face of Heat forward Jimmy Butler, one of the most clutch, fiery and unflappable playoff performers this game has ever seen. Butler initially responded with a smirk, but that surely belied the fuse that had just been lit.
The Heat outscored the Celtics 24-9 after this Jimmy and Grant face-off 😳🌶️ pic.twitter.com/517RREFVWW— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 20, 2023
Just 15 seconds later, Butler overpowered Williams and scored inside as he was fouled. The smirk was long gone. He turned back toward Williams and they got so close that their foreheads touched as Butler made his presence known with some words that were probably not meant for children’s ears.
Williams, for his part, stepped right toward Butler and did not back down. But at that point, it probably did not matter. This game now belonged to Butler. This game now belonged to the Heat, a team that has thus far overwhelmed the Celtics with its toughness, physicality and sheer will.
After Williams’s 3-pointer and subsequent trash talk, Butler and the 8th-seeded Heat closed the game with a 24-9 run to seize a 111-105 win. Miami now leads these Eastern Conference finals, 2-0, and the Celtics, who have bounced back from challenges with great purpose all season, suddenly face one unlike any other.
“You expect to beat the best,” Williams said. “No matter if I lit [Butler] up or not, he’s going to do that. For me, it’s a matter of understanding that, yeah, sure, you did poke a bear. And how are you going to respond? Because for me, he made some tough shots, I battled, and I’m going to keep battling. He’s going to have to make every single tough shot the rest of the series, and I’m not going to turn and look otherwise, because I respect him as a [expletive] player.”
The series now shifts to Miami for Game 3 on Sunday. To advance to the Finals for the second year in a row, and to avoid a stunning upset against a Heat team that needed a fourth-quarter comeback in its second play-in game just to reach the playoffs, the Celtics will need to win at least twice in Miami, where the Heat are undefeated there during these playoffs.
“They came in and won two games,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said. “They played well. You give them credit. But we’re not dead or anything. We got a great opportunity. I still have the utmost confidence, everybody has the utmost confidence.”
Butler scored 9 of his team-high 27 points after his initial interaction with Williams. And while the moment provided scintillating theater, the Celtics were ultimately undone by other inadequacies down the stretch, as their crunch-time woes resurfaced at the worst possible time.
The Celtics were held without a field goal for the game’s final 3 minutes, 51 seconds. In the fourth quarter, Boston committed four turnovers, made 1 of 8 3-pointers, surrendered four offensive rebounds and allowed the Heat to make 12 of 22 shots. The Celtics were outscored in the period, 36-22, unable to solve Miami’s pesky zone defense.
“This is a series of discipline and mind-set,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said, “and there were times throughout the game where we weren’t the more disciplined team.”
Tatum led the Celtics with 34 points, 13 rebounds, and 8 assists, but was once again held without a field goal in the fourth quarter, when he went 0 for 3 with two turnovers. The Celtics connected on just 10 of 35 3-pointers as a team.
The Celtics have held double-digit leads in both of these losses, and on Friday night they actually coughed up two of them. In the last round, the 76ers sometimes wilted when the pressure increased. The Heat seem to thrive in these situations.
In the second quarter, Boston’s powerful 21-2 surge was almost immediately followed by a 19-2 Miami run. The Heat led at halftime, 54-50, before the Celtics regained control by winning the third quarter, 33-21, behind 15 points from Tatum.
It was an encouraging shift from Game 1, when the Celtics were dismantled during that period. Maybe it was a sign of growth.
The Celtics took a 86-75 lead on a Robert Williams 3-point play to start the fourth. But New Hampshire native Duncan Robinson, who fell out of the rotation for much of this season, drilled a pair of 3-pointers to give his team a chance.
With Boston ahead, 100-96, Butler sparked a 9-0 burst with a pair of tough jumpers over Williams, whose attempt to intimidate Butler had clearly backfired.
“I like that,” Butler said. “I’m all for that. It makes me key in a lot more. It pushes that will that I have to win a lot more. It makes me smile. It does. When people talk to me, I’m like, ‘Okay, I know I’m a decent player, if you want to talk to me out of everybody that you can talk to…”
Despite all of the Celtics’ success this year, their late-game collapses have made it difficult for fans at TD Garden to truly trust them. Even though this game was still well within reach, the uneasiness was palpable.
Tatum was fouled on a 3-pointer with 49.3 seconds left and hit all the free throws to pull Boston back within 105-103. But Gabe Vincent responded by shaking Tatum and hitting a tough step-back 20-footer with 35.1 seconds left.
There was time for the Celtics to get a two-for-one that would make it unnecessary to foul. But Tatum had the ball knocked away twice before being fouled with 21.6 seconds left. He hit both free throws that Vincent answered with two of his own, and Tatum’s ensuing 3-pointer was off.
“I think they outplayed us,” Jaylen Brown said. “They out-toughed us tonight and they found a way to make plays down the stretch and we didn’t.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.