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The Heat have turned the tables on the frustrated Celtics

Vincent Goodwill
·6-min read

It didn’t take Marcus Smart’s postgame outburst to confirm the Boston Celtics are performing nothing like we expected from them, but perhaps it’s good to know there’s some aggression somewhere on that team.

The Miami Heat have turned what was thought to be a poised, mature bunch into a group that second-guesses itself on the floor and, apparently, challenges itself off it for the world to hear.

Another double-digit lead was blown in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday — quicker than you can say “Los Angeles Clippers” — and what’s worse, the Celtics looked every bit as tentative for the entire second half of a 106-101 loss as the Heat took a 2-0 lead — with Smart’s frustration boiling over on the way to the locker room.

More turnovers than assists, being outhustled on critical possessions — these are usually what the Celtics have done to opponents the last few years.

Now, at least temporarily, the tables have turned.

“Guys were emotional after a hard game, hard loss,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said plainly, not wanting to feed the beast of rumor and speculation.

Kemba Walker wouldn’t touch it, essentially playing the “I’m not snitching” card, while Jaylen Brown didn’t seem to mind Smart’s emotion in the aftermath, saying, “[Smart] plays with passion, he’s full of fire. He has that desire and will. We need him to have that.”

What they need in this series, they can’t borrow from the Heat, who seem to relish in this role as stalking underdog. The Celtics don’t lack toughness, it’s not as if they’re a bunch of preening lottery picks without playoff scars.

Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat handles the ball as Marcus Smart #36 of the Boston Celtics defends during the third quarter in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat are up 2-0 against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

“We gotta figure some things out. We’ve had some double-digit leads and let go of the rope,” said Jayson Tatum, who scored 21 points. “Just be prepared to win the next one. Not looking at winning four out of five. Just win the next one.”

With the Milwaukee Bucks out of the way and the Philadelphia 76ers doing what was expected, the runway was supposed to be cleared for the Celtics to get to these NBA Finals. It’s no longer a happy-go-lucky bunch, nor are they a team racked with inner turmoil and roster indecision.

Kevin Durant and old buddy Kyrie Irving will be on the scene whenever next year begins, so breaking through this year feels like Boston’s best chance as they feel the talent matchup is comparable.

They’re young enough and constructed well enough to where there shouldn’t be panic, but there had better be some urgency in maximizing opportunities now as opposed to the usual “in three years, this group …” mantra we’ve been fed since Tatum and Brown started to scratch their potential.

But through the first two games of this series, they haven’t matched Miami’s ability to make a bad situation livable and workable. Jimmy Butler had a below-average offensive game but when it counted, there he was darting in the passing lanes and getting steals for layups, making due out of doo-doo.

It’s clear the Heat are comfortable feeling uncomfortable, and there’s never a feeling the Celtics can ever get beyond arm’s reach distance — which can be frustrating for a team as talented as the Celtics.

“Spo is preaching to me to impact winning, how are we going to impact winning,” Butler said of head coach Erik Spoelstra. “I did that on the defensive end.”

Butler has been on this end of a 2-0 lead against the Celtics before, in 2017, when his Chicago Bulls were halfway to a No. 1 seed vs. No. 8 seed upset before the Celtics responded to win the next four games. Expecting him to take a step back and breathe a sigh of relief isn’t expected, especially when he’s armed with the same information the rest of the world knows: The East isn’t getting any easier in the future, so applying the grip now could be the most likely opportunity to sneak one in.

And if there’s one thing that can get under the skin of someone like Smart, a tough cookie that prides himself on being exactly what he is and nothing more, it’s the fact that they’re losing this way.

Losing a 125-122 game wouldn’t prompt such a reaction, it feels like. But one where scoring felt like a premium relative to this offensive-minded bubble setting, losing a rugged contest that should be somewhat up their alley likely bugs Smart to no end.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 17: Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat reacts during the fourth quarter against the Boston Celtics in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on September 17, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Jimmy Butler has been on this end of a 2-0 lead against the Celtics before in 2017. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

When getting these double-digit leads, you never know where it’s coming from. Walker using his size to disappear in the defenses, Tatum scoring from all points on the floor, Brown taking advantage of the limited opportunities to get on the glass.

But when Miami turns up the pressure — or throws a zone their way, the Celtics can’t even look to the sidelines. Stevens, a fabulous coach, is getting worked by Spoelstra through two games.

Spoelstra used Duncan Robinson’s early 3-point shooting to unlock Bam Adebayo in the third quarter, dominating Boston’s bigs and confusing the Celtics with the matchup zone. Even when the Heat had an early fourth-quarter drought, they dragged the Celtics into the mud with them, keeping it close until their prime-time player asserted himself one way or the other.

“We pulled apart, we didn’t play well,” Stevens said. “We’re not beating this team if we’re not connected on both ends of the floor. Right now they’re a better team and we’re gonna have to fight to get back in this series.”

Stevens didn’t believe it was the zone that bothered his team, but their own lack of force in dealing with it. However, one bit of success Toronto had against Boston was a zone, and it caused them huge problems for stretches.

So while Brad the tactician will have some work to do, Brad the psychologist will have to get his team on the couch for some group therapy before Game 3.

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