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Instant analysis: Celtics fall apart in horrendous 128-102 loss, and will now face their biggest challenge yet

The looks on the faces of (from left to right) Al Horford, Malcolm Brogdon, and Robert Williams at the Celtics bench said it all as Game 3 wore on in Miami.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

MIAMI — Even after the Celtics fell behind the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals with two home losses, they remained confident upon arrival in South Florida for Game 3 at Kaseya Center. They have been very good this season when wins are essential, and they have been unbothered by road environments. They said an us-against-the-world mentality suited them.

But all of that came crashing down on Sunday night, violently and suddenly and stunningly. The eighth-seeded Heat demolished the Celtics, who just one week ago were big favorites to win an NBA title, 128-102.

Miami has now put this series, and Boston’s season, on the brink of being ended. The Celtics will look to avoid a sweep in Game 4 on Tuesday night, and in the bigger picture, they will hope to become the first NBA team ever to overcome a 3-0 deficit.

Celtics stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown wilted, combining to go 12 for 35 from the field and 1 for 14 from the 3-point line, with six turnovers. Boston was just 11 for 42 from beyond the arc as a team. The Heat embarrassed Boston’s once-formidable defense, shooting 56.8 percent from the field and 54.3 percent from the 3-point line. Former undrafted free agent Gabe Vincent led Miami with 29 points.


Jimmy Butler knocks the ball away from Jayson Tatum during the first half.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Observations from the game:

⋅ Kevin Love, who was scoreless in Game 2, started Sunday’s game with a 12-footer and a 3-pointer. But he injured his ankle soon after. He’s a poor defender in any situation, but he’s even worse on a bad ankle, and the Celtics failed to realize that on a few possessions before Love was subbed out for the rest of the game. This may have been addition by subtraction for the Heat, though, because Boston is in need of weak links on this Miami defense.


⋅ Tatum got off to a good start, swishing a 3-pointer and streaking for a fast-break dunk. It was the kind of start that sometimes ignites dominant nights for him. But in this one it didn’t translate. Instead, it turned into another forgettable performance. The Heat hit him with timely traps, and when they didn’t their help defense was usually there when Tatum lowered his head and tried to go through multiple players. He had 14 points on 6 of 18 shooting.

⋅ Still, Tatum’s night was better than Brown’s. From air-balling 3-pointers to looking somewhere between lost and uninterested on defense, Brown seemed out of it at both ends of the court. He had three first-half turnovers and perhaps his worst mistake was firing up a contested 3-pointer with 10 seconds left in the second quarter, when Boston could have held for the last shot. He was fortunate that the Heat did not capitalize, but it was a mental error indicative of his approach.

⋅ Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla burned his lone challenge at the end of the first quarter when Robert Williams was called for a charge that wiped away a 3-point play and would have been his third foul. The challenge was successful, but Williams missed the ensuing free throw and committed his third foul midway through the second quarter anyway. Derrick White started in place of Williams, a switch from the double-big lineup. The change had no impact, obviously, and Williams and Al Horford wound up sharing the floor midway through the first quarter.


⋅ To have a good idea of Boston’s defensive effort in the first half, one needed to simply watch Heat guard Duncan Robinson. The New Hampshire native is primarily a spot-up shooter, but he punished the Celtics with timely cuts and even drives to the rim. He also added a pair of 3-pointers and missed two open ones that were a result of his movement and Boston’s failure to react to it.

Duncan Robinson brings the home crowd out of their seats after he hit a a third-quarter shot. He finished with 22 points.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

⋅ The Heat led by as many as 22 points in the second quarter, and with the Celtics appearing dazed and wobbly, there was a chance to all but finish the visitors off there. But Miami didn’t quite seize it, as Boston pulled within 15 points at halftime, a very manageable deficit. Marcus Smart then started the third quarter with the kind of play he has become known for, and the kind of play that can shift a game’s mood. He plowed into the lane, pulled down an offensive rebound and scored over two Miami players as he was fouled. Suddenly, it was 61-49, and really anyone’s game. Until it wasn’t. The Heat blitzed the Celtics with a 13-2 run that ended only when Max Strus received a technical foul for taunting. Ouch. The Celtics’ body language was horrific. They quit, and it was a stunning reaction on a stage as big as this one. By the start of the fourth quarter, with the Heat leading, 93-63, Smart was the lone remaining starter on the court, surrounded mostly by third-stringers.


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Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him @adamhimmelsbach.