BOSTON — The Celtics stayed alive down by four points with 2:31 remaining somehow, after allowing 46 points in the third quarter and three empty possessions, when that Jimmy Butler arrived. First, he turned through Marcus Smart’s double team in the post and fired a pass to the right corner to Caleb Martin for three. Then, Bam Adebayo launched a football pass from the post to half court, where Butler caught it, tapping his toe in front of the half court line as the Celtics’ sideline complained, dribble to the right wing and hit a three.
The Heat upset Boston at home, 123-116, nearly one year to the day that they took care of business with a Game 1 win in Miami. Aside from 20-point third quarter losses, Wednesday’s shared little resemblance to last year’s, when Al Horford and Smart sat with COVID and an injury, while Robert Williams III played through one. Grant Williams logged 34 minutes compared to 0 this year. Butler beat Boston with playmaking, this time, rather than scoring as Joe Mazzulla saw his defensive game plan fall into shambles.
Offensive sets looked different even as the team’s best, Smart stepping up to manage the first-half offense. Jaylen Brown handled the ball late instead of Jayson Tatum, who became an off-ball screener and on defense, over-aggressive help in the lane against Butler doomed the Celtics, who allowed seven Butler assists.
“We lost our offensive purpose, we lost our game plan discipline,” Mazzulla said. “Allowed them to get out in transition, get second-chance shots, didn’t guard the three-point line … I thought they got out in transition, they were able to get out some leak-outs, we got cross-matched a lot in transition, which put us into some difficult spots in the half court and lost sight of their shooters … we won three out of the four quarters, we lost one quarter, because we dropped our sense of urgency … we played harder than they did in the first half, so naturally, they’re going to respond, and when you’re playing at a certain level, against a team like this, you can’t think what you did in the past is good enough … that’s what this series is about, how long can we stay the more competitive, the more physical, the more disciplined basketball team?”
The Celtics, to his point, ran some of their sharpest plays all postseason to build a 13-point lead before halftime. Horford sent the Heat into timeout on a horns play that set him up in the corner for three. Horford fed Malcolm Brogdon downhill for a layup and finished a side pick-and-roll from Smart, who matched his season high for assists in a half with 10. Tatum scored through Max Strus for three points inside.
Williams III grabbed three straight offensive rebounds to open the game and matched his season-high with 10 points in the first quarter. Boston’s defensive scheme, which thrived loading up against Joel Embiid late last round while ignoring P.J. Tucker, couldn’t do the same in this game. Butler consistently found weak side shooters who either made the Celtics pay directly or sent them scrambling.
Williams III and Horford logged only nine minutes together and posted a 140 defensive rating. The cracks showed as the final minutes ticked away, the defense hedging away from Caleb Martin, who blew by Smart as he tried to recover and finished through the help side defense.
“There’s always freedom to make plays,” Mazzulla said. “I think if a possession warrants an opportunity to make a play, you try and go and make it, and so I think on those couple of ones (where we cheated), we just tried to make a play and it didn’t go our way.”
Brown dribbled into the lane and lost the ball and Smart missed back-to-back threes early in the third quarter, setting up an 18-3 spiral where Mazzulla saw the Celtics lose the game plan. Gabe Vincent fired an outlet pass from the defensive zone to Kevin Love, who hit a three, then Love tossed a pass to Strus down-court, who Smart initially blocked, to tie the game at 72.
“The threes, the catch-and-shoot ones for Strus, the transition for Lowry, the transition for Love, the Vincent ones, those are the ones you’ve gotta work to take away,” Mazzulla continued.
The Adebayo rim threat loomed large in the half court too, and when the Celtics defended his floater, Butler poured in a put-back leaner along the baseline to begin his 12-point, three assist third quarter. Adebayo powered through Smart after he lost the ball in transition and Williams III tossed a defensive rebound tip-toeing along the baseline back to Love under the rim for a free lead. Nobody arrived to help him.
Nobody reached Strus pulling up around a three, which extended Miami’s lead to six points, and nobody could help Derrick White when Butler unleashed a mid-ranger, drew free throws and got blocked, repositioning himself after grabbing his own miss for a pull-up three. He whipped a skip pass to Martin for three and the drop watched Kyle Lowry and Strus shoot open jumper to cap a 46-point quarter, Boston’s worst defensively outside of 48 in the third quarter in the January Thunder loss.
Down by 12 points to begin the fourth quarter, Tatum sat while Brogdon and Brown brought the ball up and Payton Pritchard took the floor on his way to a 12-minute night where he shot only twice. Tatum, who checked in with eight minutes remaining and trailing by eight points before watching White and Brown trade passes for three possessions. Tatum lined up Martin and drew free throws on the fourth, but ended the fourth quarter with no shot attempts, the first time that happened all season.
“We get tired of doing the little things sometimes,” Smart said. “I think that showed in our spacing. We have a lot of good players, but when we’re all on top of each other, nobody can be be great. When you’ve got a good defensive team like Miami, they’ll make you pay for that. We’ve gotta make sure we do those little things and we can’t get bored with those. We’ve gotta realize what got us the lead and what was working for us.”
The ball landed back in Tatum’s hands after and he cut the Heat’s lead to five driving into three defenders in the paint and drawing a foul. Mazzulla, who only called one timeout during the decisive third quarter, called one less than two minutes after Miami did with three minutes remaining in the quarter to reset Boston’s spacing.
Tatum threw a swing pass right to Butler, his sixth steal, in front of Brown. Tatum traveled, stutter-stepping against Martin’s help at the rim and caught a kick-out following Horford’s offensive rebound and stepped to attack Martin’s closeout on the left wing without dribbling. Tatum ran across the floor with the ball back on defense before firing back to the referee with 90 seconds remaining. Boston’s offensive game plan looked as disconnected as its defense in a week where Mazzulla emphasized player leadership.
“It’s a choice, a decision, come out and play with a different mentality,” Brown said. “We came out too cool, like we were playing a regular season game. It’s the Eastern Conference Finals. Like come on. We gotta play with more intensity than we did today. We’ve just gotta be better, including me. Defensively, the intensity that we had in the last series, we did not start today with, that’s bottom line, what the game plan is. I thought we had a lot of good looks on offense, but defense is gonna help us propel to where we want to get to.”
“We felt good. I felt good. I thought we had a good game plan going into the game, it just lacked intensity.”