You would have thought the Miami Heat’s 22-2 run to start the third quarter against the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals lasted two years, given the public reaction to the series opener.
Popular opinion figured those six minutes for an extension of the 2020 conference finals, as if the Celtics were the same team the Heat bullied in the bubble. As if they had not swept Kevin Durant’s Brooklyn Nets and eliminated Giannis Antetokounmpo’s defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in a Game 7. As if they were not missing Marcus Smart and Al Horford, the brawn and brains behind the NBA’s best defense.
Even Heat star Jimmy Butler said after Game 1, “I expect us to do that from every quarter from here on out,” as if Celtics counterparts Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown would forget how to play basketball again.
Only, Smart and Horford returned to smother the Heat defensivelyTatum and Brown rediscovered their stardom, and Boston reminded everyone not to make sweeping assumptions after one bad quarter in Game 1 of a best-of-seven series, dominating Miami for all four quarters of a 127-102 victory in Game 2.
“Wasn’t surprising to see how well we guarded with our guys back,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka.
The Celtics turned an early 10-point deficit on Thursday into an 11-point lead by the end of the first quarter. They pushed the margin to 70-45 at halftime and led by as many as 34 points in the second half. Miami’s starters did not see the court in the fourth quarter, prioritizing rest for a road game 3 in another 48 hours.
“They came out and hit us in the mouth, and we didn’t know how to respond,” said Miami’s Bam Adebayo.
Lost was the discussion of Butler as “a top-five NBA player as soon as the postseason starts” even if he ended the evening with 29 points, the bulk of which came with the outcome already settled. Nobody was singing Butler’s praises when he shot 29.7% and the Bucks swept his Heat in the first round last season. His 41 points and 17 free throws in Game 1 on Tuesday were as remarkable as they were unsustainable.
Nowhere to be heard was talk of Adebayo’s stranglehold on the Celtics, stemming from his game-winning block of Tatum in Game 1 of the 2020 East finals and resurfacing with his wedgie block of Brown during the third-quarter run in Game 1 of this series. Boston got whatever it wanted offensively in Game 2. Tatum and Brown combined for 51 points on 30 shots to lead six Celtics in double figures on a 51% shooting night.
Things change year to year, game to game, even quarter to quarter in the NBA.
The Celtics have now outscored the Heat by 34 points outside the six minutes to start the third quarter in Game 1. They are scoring 121.2 points per 100 possessions against Miami through two games, and their healthy defense just left us to wonder how the Heat might manufacture points beyond Butler’s aggression.
“It was evident after Game 1, that third quarter, 39-14, eight of our 16 turnovers, them getting a lot of offensive rebounds and Butler getting to the free-throw line,” Udoka said of his team’s response in Game 2 “It was pretty evident that they were the more physical, aggressive team, and we said, ‘Let’s look at the three quarters and be optimistic about what we did there.’ If a team is just going to come out and out-hustle you … we could match that intensity.We pride ourselves on being one of the tougher teams, so we knew if we matched that we’d be in good shape tonight. Not much needed to be said. Everybody saw it.”
We should be careful about making snap judgments the other way after Game 2. The series is still tied, and while Boston stole home-court advantage on Thursday, Miami would host Game 7 if the series gets that far.
In totality through two games, the Celtics have looked like the team that has been the NBA’s best for six months now. Their healthy rotation lost once in the second half of the regular season — by a single possession — and Derrick White missed Game 2 in Miami for the birth of his first child. They have outscored opponents by 13.5 points per 100 possessions since Jan. 6. The gap between their top-rated defense and Miami’s second-rated outfit is the difference between the Heat and the 16th-rated defense.
“That’s what our team’s about,” said Horford. “We’ve been talking about this since January, when we really started getting at it and kind of creating that identity and how we wanted to play. That’s who we’ve been.”
We know for certain the Celtics are tougher than they were two years ago. They are now 4-0 after their playoff losses, winning those games by a combined 69 points. They held Durant 13% below his regular-season shooting percentage in the first round and Antetokounmpo 10% below his in the second. It is hard to imagine Butler maintaining his 63% clip through two games, and if he does, it still might not be enough.
“There are really good players and really talented teams in the NBA, but I think the sign of a good team is how you respond after losses, especially tough ones,” said Tatum. “It just kind of shows the character of the group. We’ve done a really good job most of the year responding after tough losses and situations.”
The health that seemed like a problem for the Celtics in Game 1, when Smart was nursing a sprained foot and Horford was stuck in COVID-19 protocols, is now a serious issue for the Heat. Kyle Lowry’s hamstring has sidelined him for eight games in the playoffs, and PJ Tucker left Thursday’s loss with a knee injury.
The concerns about the Heat entering the conference finals — Tyler Herro’s defense and the ability of Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin to perform on this stage — still linger as the series heads to Boston. They will need far more from Butler’s supporting cast if they want to avoid returning to Miami down 3-1.
Then again, we should be wary of deciding a series after one blowout, whether in one quarter or one game.
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