Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla helped swing the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the 76ers in Boston’s favor by putting center Robert Williams back in the starting lineup in Game 6 in place of Derrick White. Williams gave the Celtics another body to throw at league MVP Joel Embiid, and P.J. Tucker’s limitations allowed Williams to act more as a roamer on defense.
Mazzulla has stuck with the same group against the Heat in the conference finals, but it has not gone well. In 14 minutes together, the double-big pairing of Williams and Al Horford has been outscored by 51.6 points per 100 possessions. Yes, that’s an extremely small sample size, but the Heat simply pose different challenges.
Jimmy Butler has actively sought out matchups with Williams in space, and Horford has struggled to contain center Bam Adebayo. Mazzulla seemed to have some reluctance about the double-big group after Game 1. When he was asked about it, he paused for about two seconds before answering.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “Like I said, I thought each lineup presented things that did well.”
Then the Horford/Williams pairing returned at the start of Game 2 and lasted less than five minutes, as the Heat took a 4-point lead. The two never shared the court again.
White, an All-Defensive team selection, blocked two of Butler’s shots in Game 2 and continues to be a force from beyond the arc. He’s made 6 of 10 3-pointers in this series and the Celtics have a plus-9.0 rating with him on the court. Malcolm Brogdon is the only other Celtic with a positive rating in the series.
But White hasn’t played more than 23 minutes in any of the last four games. It’s time for him to reenter the starting lineup in Game 3.
▪ Grant Williams just picked the wrong guy. In most cases, you’d love to see the toughness and energy and general I-really-care vibe Williams displayed when he and Butler started verbally jousting in the fourth quarter of Game 2.
But you could almost see Butler’s battery charging up as it happened. Nevertheless, the Celtics did not lose the game because Williams chirped at Butler. And their brief sideshow actually took away from what was a productive and important night for the Celtics forward.
Williams’s opportunities during these playoffs have been uneven at best. But after sitting out Game 1, he provided a clear burst in Game 2. He made 4 of 6 shots and tallied 9 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and a block, without committing a turnover. He should be part of the rotation for the remainder of the playoffs.
▪ Jaylen Brown was asked after the game whether Williams made a mistake by initiating things with Butler.
“Next question,” he said.
This non-answer could have been taken two ways: Maybe Brown didn’t have anything nice to say about Williams, so he chose to say nothing at all. Or maybe Brown just had no plans to criticize his teammate. Brown has passed on answering questions fairly often this season, and based on the precedent, the guess here is that the latter explanation is the right one.
▪ The Celtics have been miserable down the stretch of close games in the playoffs. With Friday’s loss, they’re 0-6 in games that are within 5 points in the final three minutes. Yikes.
▪ In Game 2, former perennial All-Stars Kevin Love and Kyle Lowry combined to go 0 for 8 from the field and were held scoreless, while former undrafted free agents Caleb Martin, Duncan Robinson, Gabe Vincent, and Max Strus carried the Heat’s offense at times. The NBA can be a weird place.
▪ Speaking of Strus, you may remember that in 2019 the Celtics signed the sharpshooting wing to a two-way contract before changing course and giving that spot to Tacko Fall during the preseason. Strus was briefly kept around to compete for the final roster spot, which ultimately went to Javonte Green.
Well, on Friday night, Fall, who spent last season playing in China, received a massive ovation when he was shown on the Jumbotron during a timeout. Then play resumed, and Strus took the court and drilled a 3-pointer on basketball’s biggest stage. Whoops.
▪ Rotations are never set in stone, but it feels as if Jayson Tatum’s substitution patterns have shifted almost nightly during the playoffs. During the regular season, he most often sat for the final few minutes of the first and third quarters, and played the entire second and fourth. Or, he would play the entire first quarter and sit the start of the second, and then the entire third quarter and sit the start of the fourth.
In Game 2, Tatum played the entire first quarter and then returned to start the second. Then he played the entire third and returned to start the fourth. It didn’t work.
During his 3:11 break early in the second quarter, the Celtics’ 11-point lead was wiped away.
His second break came with 8:47 left in the fourth and Boston leading, 91-84. He appeared a bit fatigued on a couple of preceding plays, so maybe he needed a quick breather, but it felt odd for him to be on the bench as the game approached crunch time. In this case, the Celtics at least played the Heat even without him.
▪ Despite facing an 0-2 deficit as the series shifts to Miami, oddsmakers have made the Celtics just a slight underdog, and ESPN’s power index is actually giving them a 65 percent chance to win. And conspiracy theorists have to believe there’s no way the league would allow a Nuggets/Heat Finals to materialize. We’ll see.