On Monday, the advantage belonged to Boston from the start. The Celtics were quicker to loose balls, more active in disrupting passing lanes and more coordinated in switches, limiting quality looks for Miami. They were more urgent in getting back on defense and rotating in the paint, not allowing the Heat to push for fast breaks as they did on Saturday. Boston’s defense was so effective that Miami shot only two 3-pointers in the opening quarter, limiting its chance at making up the deficit until it was too late. It was the exact kind of energy that Boston sorely missed in the first half of Game 3. Miami’s starters combined for 18 points.
What made the game even stranger was that the Celtics didn’t play well offensively. They were only 5 for 27 on 3-point attempts when they entered the fourth quarter up 24 points and the game was effectively over. They ended the game shooting 39.7 percent from the field, a percentage that would result in a loss on most nights, not a blowout win. They also won in spite of a poor game from guard Jaylen Brown, who shot 5 for 20 from the field for 12 points.
Miami, a team that likes to pride itself on its hustle culture, gave up 10 offensive rebounds in the first half. Heat center Bam Adebayo, who finally broke out for 31 points in Game 3, reverted to being tentative, shooting the ball only twice in the first half. He finished with 9 points. In large part, this was because of the presence of Celtics center Robert Williams III, who missed Game 3 because of knee soreness. Williams, who was named to the All-Defensive second team last week, made life difficult at the rim for Miami. He had 12 points and 9 rebounds in only 19 minutes.
“We shouldn’t have to get punched in the mouth to respond,” Williams said of the team’s poor starts in its losses.
Perhaps this game was inevitable. The Celtics have not lost two games in a row the entire postseason. In their semifinal matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston responded to letdowns with three strong performances. No one has been more indicative of the Celtics’ fortunes this postseason than their top player, Jayson Tatum — a Jekyll and Hyde superstar.
There are nights when Tatum looks like one of the best players in the league. Those nights are often coming off Boston defeats. Including Monday night’s 31-point performance, Tatum has averaged 32.6 points after the Celtics’ losses during the postseason. He was aggressive in attacking the basket, getting to the line 16 times, more than any other game in this playoff run.
But when Tatum plays poorly, he looks more out of sorts than most superstars. His shoulders slump. He settles for difficult step-back jumpers, complains to referees and doesn’t get back as aggressively on defense. In Game 3 against the Bucks, Tatum had only 10 points and shot 4 of 19 from the field. On Saturday night, Tatum had a similar performance — scoring 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting.