MIAMI — Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals was a game of runs. But the two biggest runs came from the Miami Heat … and they both came in the third quarter.
The Heat outscored the Boston Celtics, 39-14, in the third, turning an eight-point halftime deficit into a 17-point lead and, eventually, an 11-point win that gave the No. 1 seed a 1-0 lead in the series. Jimmy Butler led the way with 41 points and is now averaging 33.8 points on 56% shooting over his last five games.
Here are some notes, numbers and film from the Heat’s 118-107 victory on Tuesday.
1. Third quarter of doom
The Heat were the best third-quarter team through the first two rounds, having outscored the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers by 27.2 points per 100 possessions over 11 third quarters. And Tuesday’s was, by far, their best third quarter yet. In fact, their 25-point differential in the third is tied for the best differential for any team in any quarter in these playoffs.
That kind of dominance obviously comes with success on both ends of the floor, and the third was the Heat’s sixth most efficient offensive quarter of the postseason. But the most resounding sequence was a stretch of four straight stops, authored by Butler and Bam Adebayo.
Adebayo got it started, first by denying Jaylen Brown the ball and eventually forcing him to catch it 35 feet from the basket with just eight seconds left on the shot clock …
Brown then isolated against Adebayo and was able to turn the corner, only to have Adebayo turn his layup into a wedgie …
“He had a step,” Adebayo said later, “but I don’t like to give up on plays.”
On the next possession, Jayson Tatum took a turn isolating against Adebayo. But he couldn’t get around him, and Max Strus dug in, took the ball, and had himself a fast break …
After a Boston timeout, it was Butler’s turn. With Adebayo switching a Robert Williams III screen for Tatum and P.J. Tucker quickly getting below Williams’ roll to the basket (allowing everybody else to stay at home), Butler read Tatum’s cross-court pass to Brown …
The next possession was only different in that no screens were set. Butler again read Tatum like a book, leaving Brown to steal an entry pass to Williams at the high post …
(That’s three pretty brutal and game-changing turnovers for Tatum, by the way.)
“[Heat coach Erik Spoelstra] doesn’t like whenever I do it,” Butler said of his defensive gambles. “Luckily, I was two-for-two on those particular shoot-the-gap passing lanes. But I don’t get them all the time, and then you see him give a look over there.”
But those last three defensive stops were doubly important, because they led to easy transition buckets. Both teams scored relatively efficiently on Tuesday, but these are two great defensive teams, and transition opportunities are critical.
“That’s what got us fueled,” Adebayo said of that defensive stretch. “That’s what got our juices going. And you know, plays like that can change a game. You see a guy do a crazy block like that and you know the energy gets into the crowd. The rim just becomes an ocean when you start running in transition.”
Miami has now won the third quarter in 11 of their 12 games, and in the other (Game 5 vs. Atlanta), they were outscored by a single point. Cumulatively, they’re a plus-93 in 144 third-quarter minutes, with no other team better than a plus-62 over the entire postseason.
2. Jimmy Butler to the line … again and again
Butler had a lot more than those two transition baskets and he finished 12-for-17 from inside the arc. But that’s only 24 points. The other 17 came at the free throw line, where he missed just one of his 18 attempts.
Among 178 players with at least 500 field goal attempts in the regular season, Butler had the fourth-highest free throw rate (54.9 attempts per 100 shots from the field). The only players with higher rates — Rudy Gobert, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid — are giants. Butler isn’t like those other guys, but he sure knows how to draw (and emphasize) a foul.
Some of it is just some bully-ball relentlessness …
Some of it is having a feel for the defender …
And some of it is just art …
Despite the 18 attempts on Tuesday, Butler’s playoff free throw rate (44.2 per 100 shots from the field) is down from the regular season. But he’s shooting better from the field and it seems he’s just getting started with the foul drawing.
“I like physicality,” he said. “Like, I want to run into people and see who falls down first, who is going to quit first. I think that’s the style of basketball I like to play. And so do they. And you know, I was 0-for-2 from three tonight. I want to go 0-for-0 next game because I just want to keep banging into people.”
3. Shorthanded Celtics
The Celtics were without Marcus Smart (who suffered a foot sprain in Game 7 vs. Milwaukee) and Al Horford (who entered Health and Safety Protocols just hours before Game 1) on Tuesday. That forced coach Ime Udoka to call on Aaron Nesmith for his first rotation minutes of the playoffs.
Nesmith was 0-for-3 in Game 1, but he did have three pretty incredible blocks, one super-athletic offensive rebound (that led to second-chance points), and an active-hands deflection that led to a Boston fast break.
The bigger impact of the two absences was on the minutes of Payton Pritchard. Game 1 was just the eighth time in 155 career games that Pritchard has played at least 30 minutes, and he finished with 18 points (shooting 4-for-11 from 3-point range), five rebounds and four assists.
But those 30 minutes included all 12 of the fourth quarter, when the Heat made Pritchard the target of their offense. The 10 ball-screens that Gabe Vincent set on Tuesday were the most he’s ever set in his career, according to Second Spectrum tracking. Nine of those 10 came in the fourth quarter, when the Heat tried to put Pritchard in actions involving Butler.
The most fun of those actions was Butler going straight from a Vincent screen (with Pritchard hedging and recovering) into a handoff for Strus …
The Celtics scored 31 points on their first 18 possessions of the fourth quarter. But that wasn’t enough, because they entered the period down 17 and because the Heat were scoring rather efficiently themselves for much of that fourth.
And if Smart can’t play in Game 2 on Thursday, Vincent may be the Heat’s leading screen-setter.
4. Sixth Man comes through
The Celtics’ defense was initially stifling, holding the Heat scoreless on their first five possessions and to just six points on their first 11.
“You have to get used to it,” Spoelstra said. “This is different. Each level you go, you’re going to get a higher level. The four teams that are still around are committed defensive teams. You’re not going to just come down and run a simple action and get a wide-open shot. You’re going to have to really do things with detail.”
But Kia Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro helped the Heat find their offense. He checked in after a timeout with 6:58 left in the first and immediately drained a pull-up 3 when Williams didn’t step up to the level of Adebayo’s screen.
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) May 18, 2022
Herro had seven points and three assists (including one perfectly-placed dime to Butler in transition) in those final seven minutes of the first quarter, finishing with 18 points (and those same three assists).
Assuming they get healthier, the Celtics will be able to defend at a high level for most of this series. And at times, the Heat are going to need Butler and Herro to just manufacture offense out of nothing. Game 1 was certainly a good start in that regard.
5. The genie of the Heat locker room
The Celtics weren’t the only shorthanded team on Tuesday. The Heat were without Kyle Lowry (hamstring) and then saw P.J. Tucker turn his ankle in the second quarter.
Tucker went back to the locker room and stayed there for the remainder of the period. But he wasn’t going to miss the second half.
“By the time that I had walked into the locker room,” Spoelstra said, “he looked at me dead in the eye and said, ‘Don’t even think about it, I’m playing in the second half.'”
The Tucker injury will still be one to monitor, but it did lead to this fabulous exchange in his press conference…
Q: Can you describe for us what happened in the second quarter? Was it your ankle?
Tucker: “I rolled my ankle.”
Q: Did you know you would come back or where did —
Tucker: “Always come back.”
Q: What happened in the locker room?
Tucker: “There’s a genie back there. Took one of my wishes.”
He’s got two left, and Game 2 is Thursday (8:30 ET, ESPN).
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