The Celtics led by nine points at halftime on Wednesday night. The Celtics then trailed by 12 points after the third quarter.
It wasn’t pretty, as the Heat bludgeoned the Celtics in that third quarter and withstood a strong Boston push in the fourth quarter to take Game 1 on the road, 123-116.
If there’s one thing we know, it’s that the Celtics won’t panic. They lost Game 1 at home last series, and they lost Game 5 at home, too. Yet for the second straight year, the Celtics were able to be part of the 20 percent of teams in history to still win series after falling behind 3-2. A 1-0 series deficit certainly isn’t a catastrophe for this group of Celtics.
But the positivity, really, ends there. The Heat were hungrier in this series opener, and they executed their game plan better than Boston did.
So it was strange to say the least when Celtics first-year head coach Joe Mazzulla put a rosy spin on his team’s performance following the 123-116 loss.
But in the second half, the Celtics once again fell into the same bad habits.
And sure enough, as Boston became more careless with the ball, it eventually let another win slip through their grasp.
In total, Boston finished with 15 turnovers on Wednesday night. Below that aforementioned threshold, sure.
But the timing played exactly into Miami’s hands, with 10 of those giveaways (and 18 total points) leading to a second-half surge that paved the way for a 123-116 Heat win on the parquet floor.
“I think we felt good. I felt good. I thought we had a good game plan going into the game,” Jaylen Brown said postgame. “Just a lack of intensity. I mean, they came out, give credit to Miami.
“They came out and out-played us from the jump. They were more physical and they out-played us. Shot the ball well and that’s how they won the game, especially in that third quarter. We got loose with the ball, but we’ve got to be better.”
Miami delivered a knockout blow in Game 1 by way of that lopsided third quarter. A 12-point lead for Boston at one point dissipated in short order, with the Heat outscoring the Celtics, 46-25, in the frame.
“We won three out of the four quarters,” Mazzulla said, disrupting a question about the Celtics potentially entering this game without the right mindset. “We lost one quarter. Because we dropped our sense of urgency. So no.”
Mazzulla actually started his press conference with the “won three out of four quarters” statement, too, so it does appear to have been the coach’s game plan when he strode to the podium.
That will undoubtedly be the major takeaway from Mazzulla’s 7-plus-minute postgame press conference, as it’s not the type of message that anyone in Boston wants to hear after yet another home playoff loss. (The Celtics are now 4-4 at home this postseason.)
The message is simple enough, as Mazzulla felt encouraged by the team’s start and finish to the game. But it also overlooks just how soundly the Celtics lost that one quarter, as the Heat set a franchise record with 46 points in the third quarter.
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When the center had to rest, Kyle Lowry was the (natural) exit for Miami and the equation was similar, only this time, Lowry took advantage of his certainty in field goals (6-12) and triples (3-5 ) to leave with 15 points and 3 assists coming off the bench.
Great second half
At the beginning of the second half, the Celtics led the score 66-57, but a 9-0 rally for Florida gave them a 71-68 lead at the beginning of the third quarter. Boston’s response was lukewarm and with a 17-9 run, Spoelstra’s player took the lead 76-75 with 7:03 left in the penultimate period and from there cemented the advantage that at the end of 48 minutes allowed them give the big bell so far in the Conference Finals.
In the third quarter, Miami scored 46 points against Boston, which only had 25.
Defensive application led by Butler
The swingman once again showed that rowing against the current is his thing and that it is the great bastion of Miami. Butler left with 35 points, five rebounds and seven assists, but his defensive contribution was perhaps more important: He had 6 steals, three of them in the fourth quarter and his pressure was key for the Celtics to end with 15 turnovers; In addition, his mark on Jayson Tatum was so good that the top figure of the locals did not try a single shot in the final quarter.
The Celtics will have to make a lot of adjustments for Game 2 if they don’t want to go to Kaseya Center, home of the Heat, with the series compromised.
So long as Boston takes care of the ball, it has the talent and depth to keep the Heat at bay.
But as Wednesday showed, the Celtics have a bad habit of being their own worst enemy at the worst possible time.
“Get better shots,” Joe Mazzulla said of Boston’s adjustments going into Game 2. “Don’t turn it over. And don’t foul. Don’t give up offensive rebounds. And don’t give up threes.”
The Heat, who have won Game 1 in each of their first three series during the 2023 postseason, are thriving in an underdog role a feeling underscored by their torrid play over the past month after an up-and-down regular season.
“I would say that everybody counted us out from the beginning was kind of what builds that chip,” Heat big man Bam Adebayo said. “But also the adversity that we’ve been through the whole season, the ups and downs, the games we should have won but didn’t win. Going to the locker room and trying to figure it out, rewrite whatever we did wrong, and going through that put us in this position.
“Now I feel like we are, like you said, one of the best teams in the league, because adversity built this. We all looked each other in the face and said, this is the second play-in game, this is our last run. This is it. From there, man, I just felt like everybody just bought into that will. I feel like we’ve just been willing wins.”
Nobody is willing more wins in the league right now than Butler. After the Heat fell down by nine at halftime Wednesday, Butler helped engineer a third-quarter rally during which Miami outscored Boston 46-25, shooting 17-for-26 from the field.
“You can’t quantify it,” Spoelstra said of the belief Butler is bringing to the rest of the Heat’s roster right now. “There’s no analytic to it. Just the feeling of stability in the locker room. Even when you’re down nine in the first half there’s just a settling effect that is impossible to quantify.
“Like, all right, we are in striking distance. Let’s just settle into our game, and Jimmy will make a bunch of plays, Bam will make a bunch of plays and everybody will be all right and everybody will just fit into their roles. But that’s what the great players do.”
Heat guard Gabe Vincent spoke for many in the locker room while describing what it’s like to play with Butler right now.
“When Jimmy’s playing like that, we feel like we can play with anybody, beat anybody,” he said. “We got a couple guys in this locker room like that, but Jimmy’s one of a kind.”
The scary part for the rest of the league is that Butler brushed off the notion that this is the highest level his game has been at through the years.
“I’m playing at an incredible level because they are allowing me to do so. They are not putting a limit on my game. They are trusting me with the ball, on the defensive end. I think that’s what any basketball player wants. That’s what anybody wants out of life is just to be wanted, be appreciated and just let you go out there and rock.”
Butler’s teammates and coaches appreciate him because they know how much better he is making the group every night.
“It’s fun,” Heat guard Kyle Lowry said. “He’s one of the best players in the world for a reason. It’s just a joy to watch it. For a guy that wants it so bad and works so hard at his craft, it’s important to enjoy his success. He gives us all the confidence to be successful and be aggressive and be assertive. That’s what makes him special, that it’s not all about him. He’s about our group and our team and everyone else.”
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