MIAMI — The Celtics sensed a moment of vulnerability. At first with themselves.
On Monday, they decided the didn’t want to go down like this, an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Miami Heat loomed that would send their core and coach’s viability into doubt. They grew disconnected, several players agreed. So they looked each other in the eye in an undisclosed location and talked it out.
By the fourth quarter in Tuesday’s Game 4, the Heat looked vulnerable too. The shooting shut off, Miami’s fading to 35% after halftime. Gabe Vincent hobbled off the court and tried to stay in the game late in the fourth quarter, stepped back on and tried to defend Jayson Tatum, who pulled up over him for a three that pushed Boston ahead by 19 points. The Heat scored only 39 points before Erik Spoelstra pulled his starters late in the fourth, the Celtics turning defense into offense and winning Game 4 — 116-99.
It started with Tatum firing and nailing a pair of threes. The kind of three-point swing missing for much of the series happened in the third quarter after the Celtics entered halftime trailing 56-50. Miami missed 7-0f-9 shots to start the quarter, and when Jaylen Brown threatened to halt Boston’s run by over-dribbling in the corner, Joe Mazzulla stopped the play with a timeout. The first memorable time he did so, and one that led to a 20-point advantage for the Celtics through the buzzer.
“I just wanted make sure we got a good shot on that,” Mazzulla told CLNS Media. “I felt like the possessions before that didn’t go well defensively. We were still playing with a good sense of pace, but we obviously lost the advantage and I just wanted to reset a little bit. We had lost a 50-50 ball to start the quarter that I think we just kind of had to nip that in the bud.”
Mazzulla told the players they couldn’t lose that 50-50 ball they did several plays prior, which Jimmy Butler narrowly avoided putting back before his layup rolled into Bam Adebayo’s hands, who dished to Max Strus, whom Tatum blocked before watching the ball bounce back into Strus’ hands for three. Tatum’s head sunk.
The lesson came at a rare moment from Mazzulla. Before Kevin Love’s trap on Brown in the corner led to something bad. Marcus Smart drove and hit Al Horford on a kick-0ut, who found Derrick White for three to tie the game at 61. Smart later said the Celtics brought physicality to Miami rather than guarding on their heel.
“It just got us composed, it looked like, potentially, we was in a bad spot,” Brown said. “He called a timeout. I thought that was a good decision.”
The Celtics shot 14-for-23, nailing seven threes in a season-saving quarter while the Heat cooled off to 8-for-22, shooting only 2-for-8 from three. Horford smacked the ball away from Strus to kick-start the run on the other end and Brown cut off a Butler pass to produce a breakout Brown score and a Tatum floater. Tatum found Smart for three, forcing Spoelstra to call one of a string of Heat second half timeouts that didn’t help Miami as much.
Shooting energized the Celtics. But Tatum talked to Smart, Brown and Robert Williams III in a small huddle after Mazzulla’s timeout in a manner not visible earlier in the series. Then they stood, arms outstretched the way Tatum had demonstrated defense — inspiring the Celtics to do the same.
“He was just letting guys know, ‘we here. Just keep going. It’s not gonna be easy, but we’re gonna win this game,'” Smart said. “We just gotta keep playing the right way. Then, he came out and led by example. He got the block, he’s helping, he’s getting rebounds and he’s making his shots, making the right plays. When you got a guy like Jayson, and Jaylen, who are leading the way like that, by example, everybody else falls in line.”
Game 3 style Celtics mistakes kept the Heat ahead into halftime and in play after, a late Brown rotation on Zeller slipping inside forcing Horford to have a quick word with him. Tatum tossed Zeller away him with a stiff arm, then nobody picked up Jimmy Butler into the half court on the other end as he drove into a foul. He made up for it with a 20-foot leaner over Caleb Martin, an easy transition finish and a steal to set up Grant Williams for three on the run while Butler scored 10 straight points to keep Miami within nine.
Tatum sat as the lead grew thinner, but the Celtics communicated, Williams and White showing two while Bam Adebayo rolled into Horford and forced him to take a fourth foul. White checked in with Mazzulla along the sideline and blocked Duncan Robinson on the next defensive stand to send Brown running for a dunk. The Heat called timeout again, setting up a play where Butler isolated Williams, who sent his shot backward. After their Game 2 feud, Williams refused to poke the bear.
“For us, it’s making sure we keep that same intensity,” he said. “The block I had was one play over 100 possessions in a game … we did a good job playing and turning up the physicality, making sure that everyone had ample opportunity to take their rounds on certain guys … it’s one block, he’s a hell of a player. If I get a block, it’s cool. If I don’t get a block, you try to make it as hard as possible.”
Tatum took the ball and dribbled and dribbled against the double team, only this time he awaited a Smart cut behind the Heat double team. They set up their two-man game to close the win, Smart also feeding Williams III for a breakaway dunk, hitting a three flaring to Tatum’s side and scooping up the ball after Williams III poked the ball away from Adebayo to send out Brown for a three-point play.
Vincent returned. Butler played some music in the locker room. Nobody sounded concerned in the Heat locker room. The Celtics know they needed to play better than they did, a late double-dribble call on Kyle Lowry, shooting fortune and a pair of Adebayo free throw misses early in the fourth all potential swing points that created a blowout. Boston didn’t win a crunch time game, they lost the first half and watched 40% of their threes fall. A threshold that made them unbeatable in the regular season, but one they reached sporadically.
Either they need to do so three more times in a row, or find other ways. They chose defense.
“Today was our best defensive game,” Tatum said. “How we were moving, how we were rotating … we were just there for one another. It’s not gonna be perfect. You’re gonna get beat, you’re gonna go for a pump fake, but it just felt like we were all connected.”