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Chad Finn

It’s not over, but there’s not much reason to still have faith in the Celtics

The Celtics must find a away to turn around this series, starting with Game 3 Sunday night in Miami.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Before tipoff of the Eastern Conference finals, ESPN Analytics tweeted that the Celtics had a 97 percent chance of defeating the Heat in the series.

Whatever their data-based rationale, giving the flawed but fearless Heat a 3 percent chance of prevailing over a Celtics team with a habit of drop-kicking prosperity seemed absurd and disrespectful at the time. Any roster with Jimmy Butler on it and Erik Spoelstra coaching it has more than a 3 percent chance of achieving just about anything.

Now? That projection feels like a punch line, a painful wallop-packing truth about the differences between what the Celtics could be and what they are. That punch line will sting the Celtics into the fast-approaching offseason if they don’t get their act together immediately.


After two games at TD Garden and two painful losses by the home team, ESPN’s faulty abacus and the Celtics’ chances of escaping this series both require a major recalibration. The Celtics blew a 9-point lead with a little more than six remaining, played their worst basketball at the most important time, and lost to the lionhearted Butler and the Heat, 111-105, in Game 2 Friday night.

The series now heads to Miami for Sunday’s Game 3. It is not over — it would be fitting for the Celtics to escape yet another massive problem of their own making. But we don’t need ESPN Analytics to tell us that their chances are slim. Three percent? I like the Celtics’ odds of coming back a little better than that. But not much better. Maybe 5 percent. Ten percent if Nick Nurse or Monty Williams are hired as coach before Game 3.

The Celtics careened into this ditch for various reasons, all familiar. The Celtics, who at their worst close games like 1997 Heathcliff Slocumb, provided their usual cavalcade of fundamental mistakes in the final moments of Game 2, including allowing the Heat three offensive rebounds in the final 55 seconds. The Celtics got outrebounded in the fourth quarter, 14-4. What an embarrassment. I’ll never understand why every single player on this team save for Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon, and Grant Williams has an allergy to boxing out.


What else? The game sped up on rookie coach Joe Mazzulla yet again. For anyone who doesn’t believe his inexperience is a fundamental issue here, I have one question: What would this series look like if the teams swapped coaches?

Mazzulla has a habit of making mistakes in-game that he acknowledges upon further review. It’s admirable that he can admit his own tactical blunders … but maybe he should stop making, you know, tactical blunders at some point?

His habit of burying offensive connector Derrick White in the fourth quarter on nights he is playing well (he hit 3 of 5 3-pointers; the rest of the Celtics were 7 for 30) is exasperating. Failing to double-team Butler, who scored 12 points after checking into the game with 7:41 remaining, is inexcusable. That was as big of a mistake as Grant Williams’s moronic decision to talk trash to the Heat star, whose intensity is ignited by such foolhardy tactics, with the Celtics up 9 and 6:22 left.

Butler played like the superstar he is, and the marriage between his smart, fierce playing style and the mind-set Spoelstra and Heat president/Celtics ancient nemesis Pat Riley demand from their players is ideal.


Meanwhile, the Celtics’ stars played like role players, and the Heat role players were permitted to play like stars by the Celtics’ often muddled defense.

Jayson Tatum finished with a spectacular stat line — he led the Celtics in points (34), rebounds (13), and assists (8). But by no means did he play a spectacular game, committing five turnovers and failing to score a basket in the fourth quarter, shooting 0 for 3 with a pair of turnovers. In the fourth quarters of the first two games of this series, Tatum has been downright dismal, with no baskets (he didn’t attempt a shot in the fourth quarter of Game 1) and five turnovers.

Some of his struggle can be attributed to the Heat defense — whaddaya know, they actually double-team the Celtics star — and some can be attributed to a lack of inspiration from the coaching staff in getting him better looks. He must find a way to break free in Game 3.

From start to finish, Jaylen Brown was the biggest individual culprit in the loss among players. He made 1 of his first 8 shots, finished 7 of 23, scored one bucket in the fourth while playing the entire quarter, and once again did little else to help when his shot wasn’t falling. Brown had just four rebounds, and three assists is pretty much the norm for him.

Brown, Smart (who took more shots in the first minute than he took in his stellar first half in Game 1), and Al Horford combined to shoot 10 for 33, and 2 for 13 from 3-point range. Combined, they were minus-54 for the game.


Meanwhile, the Heat got a combined 40 points on 17-of-26 shooting from Caleb Martin and Duncan Robinson, who as you may have heard are among seven undrafted players on the Heat. Sam Hauser, buried on the Celtics’ bench because Mazzulla can’t figure out how to utilize his team’s depth advantage, must look at the opportunities and open shots the Heat role players get with envy.

The most telling, and probably damning, stat of Game 2? Grant Williams, who hadn’t played meaningful minutes for some inexplicable reason since Game 2 of the 76ers series, scored the Celtics’ only three field goals over the final 6:37.

Let’s get this straight: A player the overmatched coach has usually had no inclination to play was the only one who showed up when the game was on the line — and yet he too was responsible for the lousy outcome because he couldn’t resist agitating Miami’s best player.

Yep, that’s the state of the Celtics in a nutshell.

I’d say we’re going to find out what they’re made of. But we probably already know. It’s not over, but beyond fans’ awareness of this team’s occasional knack to recover from self-inflicted problems, there’s not much reason to maintain faith. The percentages have turned against them, and should they play like this in Game 3, fans will too. Figure it out now, or own the failure forever.


Chad Finn can be reached at Follow him @GlobeChadFinn.