BOSTON – Finally, a close game in this series. But it wasn’t close before it was. For those of you still counting quarters, let it be known that the Miami Heat have won only two of the 12 played so far in these Eastern Conference finals.
Against that backdrop, here are five takeaways from the Heat’s 109-103 victory over the Celtics in Game 3 Saturday at TD Garden, good for a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series:
1. Miami did its work early
It’s a coaching term, often applied to big men establishing their position on the low block. But in this case, it was the entire Heat team doing so well so early in the game that no matter what Boston mustered after that, it never could flip or change things.
One quarter in Saturday, on the Celtics’ floor, Miami led 39-18. And it got worse for Boston before it got better – the Heat extended their lead to a full 26 points, 46-20, with 9:34 left in the second quarter.
Now a whole lot of things happened after that. None of it, though, could derail the Heat from doing as much as it could to win two games in one. Which is to say, Miami still was so peeved about its shoddy work in Game 2 that it hit Game 3 as if it could erase all existing video files.
“They beat us like we stole something,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said a few times late Saturday, in the hour or so after his monster performance (31 points, 10 rebounds, 15-of-22 shooting). “That should wake anybody up.”
Miami had two gimpy veterans moving around well enough to be in the lineup: point guard Kyle Lowry and forward P.J. Tucker. Lowry hadn’t played in the East finals yet due to a sore hamstring. Tucker was hobbling around from a couple of injuries (ankle, knee) in the first two games. Together, they logged nearly 66 minutes, scored 28 points and hit five of their 13 3-point shots.
Both are edgy, both made sure the Heat lived up to their anger in letting Game 2 get taken from them. So when Boston whittled down the 26-point gap to 15 by halftime, it didn’t matter. Same when Heat forward Jimmy Butler was lost at halftime to inflammation in his right knee. Same when Boston got within nine in the third quarter and nine again early in the fourth.
Eventually, the Celtics got it down to one, Jaylen Brown’s 3-pointer with 2:40 left capping a 20-4 run. But Lowry suggested and ran a play to get Max Strus – yes, that Max Strus – a clean look and the undrafted forward from DePaul drained both the deep 3-pointer and Boston’s last bit of momentum.
Whatever the Celtics threw at Miami after those first 14 minutes, the Heat had more cushion than answers (Boston outscored them 83-63 the rest of the way). But the damage was done.
Brought the clamps with us to Boston. Franchise playoff record of 19 steals. pic.twitter.com/TDFtNCmYGz
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) May 22, 2022
The question to Boston was, how could the players and coaches possibly let that happen? Did they not know this was a kind of big playoff game? They seemed as puzzled afterward as they were befuddled to start.
“It wasn’t just myself,” coach Ime Udoka said. “It was Marcus [Smart], Jayson [Tatum], Jaylen and Al [Horford] all speaking up at shootarounds and at the meetings saying be prepared, knowing they’re going to come out with their best hit. For whatever reason, we didn’t match that to start the game.
“It looked like we were kind of wilting to their pressure and started complaining to the refs. … Disappointing to come out that flat in a conference finals game.”
The familiar surroundings and friendly faces didn’t do Boston any good when it got booed off the floor twice in the first half. Home was where the hurt was Saturday.
“Seemed like we was looking around too much instead of playing the game,” Brown said.
2. Bam did what Jimmy does
Getting more out of Adebayo wasn’t just a preference of the Heat. It became essential when Butler got shut down by the team’s medical staff at halftime.
Adebayo was already on his way with 16 points, more active in 24 minutes than in Games 1 and 2 combined. It was just as important for him to finish strong with both Butler and Sixth Man winner Tyler Herro (quad) sitting down.
“He was just way more assertive on the catch and those moments in between,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And it wasn’t just the scoring. That’s what everybody is going to recognize, but he did so many things in terms of getting us organized, facilitating, playing point guard for us at times, running offense in the post through him, and then defending like he always does one through five against a team that presents a lot of challenges.
“He’s a winning player. He really is the heart and soul of our group. You can count on him all the time. He doesn’t get caught up in all the noise and everything.”
It was Adebayo firing back with a 3-point play when Boston got within nine the first time. It was his soaring slam that stemmed the bleeding of an 8-0 Celtis run soon thereafter. He followed up Strus’ aforementioned 3-pointer with a jumper that made it 98-92. And he was a presence defensively, near the rim but also in clogging lanes, helping to create Boston’s 24 turnovers.
Udoka didn’t pretend that his absent center Robert Williams III, out again with a flare-up of knee soreness, would have made much of a difference against this inspired version of Adebayo. “Adebayo kind of put his shoulder into whoever was guarding him, into their chest, so Rob can’t save the day as far as that. Guys have to take ownership of that matchup.”
3. For Tatum, a night from which to bounce back
Smart got the crowd excited, temporarily anyway, when he rolled an ankle, retreated to the locker room, then hobbled back out to rejoin the fray. Tatum did the same thing, suffering a shoulder stinger that had him sitting on the floor while action swirled around him. He left the court, got attended to, then returned as well.
But the comeback Celtics fans most want to see will have to wait until Monday. That would be Tatum firing back from a miserable performance: 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting, including 1-of-7 from the arc, along with six turnovers. He had a triple-nothing going after one quarter – no points, rebounds or assists – and never found a rhythm, never unlocked the defensive attention Miami threw at him. Zero field goals in the second half.
“I felt like I left the guys hanging tonight,” Tatum said.
Tatum did fess up to one area in which he played into the Heat’s hands – rushing things to close that massive deficit.
“That’s possible, playing extremely fast, trying to get it back,” he said. “Every time we came to the huddle, we talked about we can’t get it back in one play, that we’ve just got to keep playing the right way. … But obviously human nature plays a part. You’re down so much, you just want to get back so bad that you can just kind of move a little too fast sometimes.”
Tatum wasn’t alone. The Celtis had 24 turnovers worth 33 points to Miami, and 19 of them came on live balls.
4. Lowry gave the Heat its boss back
It wasn’t just the force with which Kyle Lowry returned to Miami’s lineup, though he brought plenty of that. It was his presence, his ability to organize things for the Heat. To pre-empt Butler’s stated intention to step into the point guard role as a distributor. Even to plead his team’s case with the referees in a way that fill-in Gabe Vincent wouldn’t have dared while Lowry was out.
His hamstring injury had scratched him from eight of the previous 10 games, but Lowry looked and talked as if he had no residue of the ailment through his 29 minutes.
The impact of QB1 🙌 pic.twitter.com/8B48cKQj83
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) May 22, 2022
“He’s special,” Strus said. “To have his leadership and playoff experience was huge for us to keep us grounded and keep everything positive throughout it all. He’s been in these moments plenty of times in his career.”
It’s no coincidence, either, that Smart, after a terrific outing in Game 2, came back down to 16 points (1-of-4 on threes) with four turnovers to seven assists before fouling out.
5. Some will limp, most will play
So let’s tote up the injury count heading into Game 4 Monday. Williams already was sidelined for Boston, which means his knee might actually calm down enough with a four-day gap to return. Smart’s ankle and Tatum’s shoulder weren’t being treated as serious problems that would cost further time. Ditto for Herro’s thigh and, with a bit more caution, even Butler’s sudden knee pain.
Good thing, because they’re all going to want to have a say in what happens the rest of the way in this series. Role players stepping up – like Strus, Caleb Martin and even Victor Oladipo for Miami (surprising solid defense by VO after starting the second half in Butler’s place) – is a fine thing, but the starters and top rotation guys don’t want their Finals trip or summer exit to be dictated by others.
Maybe in Game 4, neither team will fall behind by 20 points or more, the biggest trend so far in this matchup. We can only hope.
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