The Celtics were supposed to be the better team in this series and they’re clearly not. Even when they led by 12 points early in the fourth quarter Friday night against the Heat, there was never a sense they were in control.
That’s because they weren’t, because they are a flawed and vulnerable team that has made a disturbing habit of freezing with fright in the crucial minutes of critical games. So it should come as no shock that the Celtics wasted that double-digit lead and looked completely inept in the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Jayson Tatum again didn’t make a field goal. Jaylen Brown made one, and Grant Williams decided to let his emotions get in the way by getting into a face-to-face jawing match with Jimmy Butler after the Miami star scored a bucket in Williams’s face and drew a foul.
That moment with 6:22 remaining sparked Butler and the Heat and it had little impact on the Celtics. Eerily similar to the NBA bubble, Boston melted under Miami’s pressure, unable to score on offense, unable to get a rebound on defense, and playing the same defense that allows Butler to get to his favorite spots and drain jumper after jumper.
The Celtics look like the inferior team in this series and that was evident in Friday’s 111-105 loss at TD Garden, when they allowed a 29-14 run in the final nine minutes. After a Williams dunk with 3:52 left, the Celtics didn’t score another field goal.
Miami, meanwhile, scored 13 points in that span, including a pair of jumpers from Butler.
The Celtics don’t know how to handle a zone defense. They don’t know how to defend Butler. They don’t know how to stop Bam Adebayo from getting rebounds. Add all of those elements to Caleb Martin scoring 25 points and the Heat head to South Beach with two well-earned victories.
Meanwhile, the Celtics have to win four of the next five, including two in Miami, to advance to the Finals. Right now, it’s a big question if they could even win a game, because unless it’s a blowout, they can’t execute in the fourth quarter.
Boston coach Joe Mazzulla acknowledged the obvious. The Celtics have the talent to win the NBA championship but not the mental fortitude, at least not through two games. In each, simple fourth-quarter execution prevailed. The Heat executed. The Celtics wilted under pressure.
“It’s a series of discipline and a mind-set, so it’s mental from the standpoint of who can make the right plays at the right times, who can make the simple plays, who can win those details and those margins,” Mazzulla said. “So it’s definitely mental.”
The Heat are living in the Celtics’ heads. They are eager to atone for losing to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals last season. They heard the pundits saying they barely had a chance to extend this series to six games. Now they go home with a chance for a sweep.
Meanwhile, Mazzulla didn’t seem to think double-teaming Butler made any difference. So until an adjustment is made, he’ll be allowed to dribble to his preferred spot and hit jumper after jumper. How has that worked out so far?
“I think when he misses we have to get the rebound,” Mazzulla said. “We gave up two very, very critical offensive rebounds. So, I think focusing on the role guys getting going is more important than that. When he misses, we have to get the rebound. So, I thought we played relatively good defense on possessions and we didn’t finish plays.”
At this point it comes down to pride. Do the Celtics have enough pride to win two games on the road? What happens when the game is close and Miami plays zone? The Celtics treat this situation like a 10-year-old watching a horror movie without their parents’ permission. They are frightened.
The Celtics claimed they had unfinished business after losing in the Finals last year, but the harsh reality is they don’t seem any more mentally prepared for these playoff challenges than they were last year. They added Malcolm Brogdon. They are healthy. They had home-court advantage throughout the playoffs and they still have the same yips in the fourth quarter that cost them games.
It’s difficult to increase mental fortitude in 48 hours, especially when the opponent knows how to beat you. The Celtics have put themselves in unenviable positions the past few years, and they’ve done it again, the worst situation of all.
“Just effort, playing the right way the whole game, honestly in my opinion,” Robert Williams said. “And trusting each other. We got to gain that trust and keep that trust throughout the whole game.We lost, so it’s obviously something we need to get together. Time is running out. We don’t have time for these mess-ups. Take the challenge. Everybody, the whole team. It’s not a one-person thing. The whole team has to step up and take the challenge.”
And don’t blame Grant Williams for getting in Butler’s face. He tried to inspire his teammates but his teammates didn’t respond. Mazzulla didn’t adjust. The players relented under the increased pressure, and the Heat were laughing in their faces.
And they’re laughing all the way to Miami, knowing they are the stronger and more connected team.