BOSTON – Now that we know the back hallway at TD Garden has miraculous healing powers on par with the Grotto at Lourdes, we can move on to Monday’s Game 4 (8:30 ET, ABC) of the 2022 Eastern Conference finals secure in the knowledge that nobody who gets hurt gets too hurt.
Remember that famous recovery by Celtics great Paul Pierce back in 2008, from being rolled off the parquet floor in a wheelchair to bouncing back as a fist-pumping dynamo in Game 1 of The Finals against the Lakers? We got two of those Saturday in Game 3: Boston’s Marcus Smart hobbling to the locker room after rolling his ankle, then teammate Jayson Tatum doing likewise with a bum right shoulder.
Both came back to thunderous cheers from the home crowd. Not that it mattered to the outcome, a 109-103 Miami Heat victory that was lost for Boston in the first 15 minutes.
Perhaps that miracle corridor will work some of its recuperative magic on the Celtics overall now, as they try to climb out of their 2-1 hole in the best-of-seven series. Here are four things to be mindful of as Miami tries to take a commanding lead back to South Florida:
1. Let’s hope we’re done with the whiplash
What is it we hear every spring about the playoffs? How teams commit to continuous improvement, adjusting and fine-tuning from game to game, slowly taking away options and preferences like a python squeezing its coils ever tighter with each wiggle of its prey.
Well, this series has been like three random sucker punches. Miami hits Boston so hard in the third quarter of Game 1 – boinnng! – that the Celtics barely know what hit them. Two nights later, the Heat act like they had no idea Boston would come in ticked off and suffer a blowout of their own.
So sure enough, Miami gets cranky about losing its home-court advantage and getting slapped silly. And the Celtics stroll out for Game 3 with no idea what they’d be facing? These are all professionals, right?
“The first game they gave up the most points they have given up in the playoffs this year,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Second game, we gave up [the] most we gave up all year long, including the playoffs. So they were extremely angry and disappointed after giving up 118, and our guys aren’t used to giving up 127.”
It doesn’t seem too much to ask that the most recent winners anticipate a little pushback before letting it actually happen.
Here’s hoping we get a nail-biter, one of those tug o’ wars where neither side gives an inch. No double-digit leads, a whole bunch of ties and lead changes. Some carryover of momentum, whether from the Heat’s terrific start Saturday or the Celtics’ desperate scramble back. It’s what happens between the games that make these things a series.
2. Short term, Tatum’s reputation is on the line
Jayson Tatum’s wad-up-and-toss-the-box score performance Saturday night doesn’t make Game 4 a referendum on his fitness to be a legitimate franchise centerpiece. But it does raise questions about that status for him now, at age 24, in this time and place.
All the goodwill generated by the 6-foot-8 forward’s transcendent 46-point performance in Game 6 against Milwaukee in the semifinals may have gotten drained when he labored for just 10 points in Saturday’s Game 3. He missed 11 of his 14 shots, including all but one of his seven 3-pointers. He turned over the ball six times, forcing matters with his dribble. Frankly, he seemed to spend as much time on the floor as he did on his feet.
The Heat threw up a web of hands, arms and bodies at Tatum and his cohorts, and the stats showed it. Miami stole the ball 19 times, which means 19 live turnovers for the Celtics on their way to 24 overall. That gifted Miami with 33 of its points and explained how the Heat got up 92 shots to the Celtics’ 70.
Part of being a franchise centerpiece is to adapt and thwart the schemes deployed against such cornerstone guys. That was one of the things Boston worked on Sunday.
“Off-ball actions always have worked well for him,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka told reporters, “whether he’s a screener or some flares and things like that because they are loading up on him every time he has the ball.
Teams are going to come after him, so for him, it’s looking to get guys involved early as he makes those passes and makes those reads, the defense always loosens up on him and he can get going himself.”
Tatum shot 3-for-8 in the second quarter but had no buckets at all in the first, third and fourth quarters. That can’t happen if he wants to permanently move up from bus rider to bus driver, to use Inside the NBA’s recent metaphor.
3. Fresh look for Oladipo
Victor Oladipo always saw himself as the bus driver, that’s for sure. When he played in Indiana, the two-time All-Star was big on theatrics, punctuating pivotal shots with his “This is my city!” shouts and gestures. He appeared to crave stardom as much as he craved basketball victories, and he was quick to share the saga of his rise even with those not particularly inclined to listen.
He bore little or no resemblance, in other words, to the guy who showed up in Game 3 – the second half of Game 3, to be precise.
The veteran guard often seemed to want to play in Miami in the worst way – and that’s how it was going. His minutes this postseason have been spotty (he did score 23 in the first-round clincher over Atlanta), but this comes after a couple of surgeries and being shuffled around before landing in South Florida on a minimum-salary deal. So what he did Saturday was a near re-invention of himself.
Oladipo never got off the bench in the first half. Then Heat star Jimmy Butler got shut down at halftime with inflammation in his right knee and there was Oladipo, suddenly in the mix. He played more than 20 of the final 24 minutes and had folks raving afterward…about his defense.
“It’s usually his offense everybody talks about,” teammate P.J. Tucker said. “He comes in with a spark. But his lateral slides and quickness were unbelievable. I told him, ‘That was some of the best lateral foot speed I’ve seen anybody have.’ Jaylen Brown, when he gets going — especially right — he’s tough to get back in front of. For Vic to square him up was unreal.”
There was a humility in the 30-year-old’s work, which included four steals – double what the entire Celtics team got all night – and eight pass deflections. Oladipo has been a good teammate but often it was on his terms. This was a refreshing sublimation of ego.
“Everything about it, it speaks to his competitive character,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That was not easy. We say it’s always easy to sacrifice when you’re not the one doing it, and he’s had to sacrifice many times.”
It was nice to look at Oladipo with fresh eyes rather than side eyes.
4. Game-time decisions galore Monday
The playoff rigors are catching up with both teams, perhaps surpassing the hallway’s healing powers. For Boston, both center Robert Williams III (who missed Game 3 with ongoing knee pain) and Smart were listed as questionable Sunday afternoon, with Tatum rated probable.
For Miami, Tyler Herro’s groin injury has him sidelined for Game 4, while Butler plans to warm up with the intention to play despite a knee injury. Butler clearly wasn’t himself in the first half (eight points on 3-for-8 shooting, less explosive and assertive), while Herro’s night was cut short early in the fourth quarter.
The Heat also will be hoping for no regression for guard Kyle Lowry or Tucker. Lowry played for only the third time in 11 games due to a hamstring strain, contributing floor organization and 11 points with six assists in 29 minutes. Tucker, who had a sore left knee, was his rambunctious self, scoring 17 points and banging about the court.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.