2023 Playoffs: East Final | Celtics (2) vs. Heat (8)

Celtics need their 2 superstars to deliver in the clutch to turn series around

While Miami continues to come through in the clutch, Boston has repeatedly wilted to find itself down 2-0 with a pair of critical games in Florida.

After falling behind 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics must find ways to get Jayson Tatum going while they keep Jimmy Butler in check.

MIAMI – If you’ve seen one Miami Heat game this postseason, you’ve seen them all. Invariably, whether it’s a play-by-play announcer or an analyst on a TV broadcast or someone seated nearby in the stands, you have heard the term “Heat culture” again and again and again. More or less in sync with that team’s 10-3 record this spring.

What is Heat culture? That’s not always easy to define. Generally, it has to do with attributes such as toughness, resiliency, a willingness to sacrifice for the group and unyielding effort. It is long on plow horses as opposed to show ponies.

Taking charges, challenging referees to call every bit of physical contact and chiding the occasional Heat player who tips the scales a couple pounds too heavy are other markers of an ingrained Miami way.

No one is more impressed by Heat culture, mind you, than the Heat, its media and its fans. And it does seem to come and go – setting tongues to wagging in the Orlando bubble in 2020 when Miami reached the NBA Finals, receding rather significantly seven months later when the Heat got swept out of the first round by Milwaukee, beaten by an average margin of 20.5 points.

For now, though, two games into the Eastern Conference finals – with Game 3 against Boston on Sunday at the Kaseya Center (8:30 ET, TNT) – Heat culture is rampant. It is Jimmy Butler hitting big shots and making pivotal plays late in both games, with not just a swagger but a sneer. It is coach Erik Spoelstra stomping his feet, walking to the free-throw lane to call timeouts and working the officials on pretty much every call and non-call.

Jimmy Butler following the Heat's Game 2 comeback win against the Celtics: 'We got some dogs'

It is an inordinate number of undrafted contributors – four of nine in Spoelstra’s current rotation – making a huge difference: Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin and Duncan Robinson have scored 45% (105-for-234) of Miami’s points so far. It’s the fact, too, that the Heat’s stars didn’t arrive as such; Butler was the last player picked in the first round in 2011, while Bam Adebayo and injured Tyler Herro went 14th and 13th in their respective drafts.

Oh, one more thing about Heat culture: It typically gets noticed relative to whichever opponent Miami is playing, who by definition do not have Heat culture. In this case that means Boston, which has dug itself a two-game deficit by squandering double-digit leads both times while going frosty cold offensively at the least opportune times.

Which leads to the inevitable question: What is Celtics culture? And for that matter, where is it?

This isn’t about banners and retired numbers in the rafters, about legends such as Russell, Bird, Cousy, McHale, the Joneses, Pierce and Garnett. This is right-here, right-now urgent, a reliable style of playing, even a way of life that can translate into Boston prevailing in the closest thing to a must-win challenge this side of an elimination game.

The Celtics culture exhibited thus far has been as unsavory as something scraped from a discarded petri dish. Game to game, there has been almost nothing on which they or their fans can hang their proverbial hats. No defensive intensity to dial up night in and night out, no go-to scoring option who can grind his way to essential points the way Butler’s been doing for the Heat.

Boston's habit of faltering down the stretch of games has crippled them against a Heat team that does the opposite.

“They work for everything and they’re grinders,” Celtics role player Grant Williams said, “and we have to match that energy. We have to come out with that same competitive nature, that same physicality, that same toughness. And then on top of that take care of our job on the other end, because they don’t come down and have empty possessions. And that’s part of why closing the game against them is so difficult, is they come down and find a way to get a bucket.”

By the way, let’s not be blaming Williams for provoking Butler into his devastating finish in Game 2. Sure, Williams talked trash with the Heat wing and engaged in a literal cabeza-a-cabeza showdown. But what followed – Butler outscoring Boston 7-4 over the next 3:49, leading a turnaround from being down 96-89 to going up 102-100 – was nothing we haven’t seen.

No need to indulge in revisionist history about Butler and his performances/antics with three previous teams (Chicago, Minnesota, Miami). In the world of what-have-you-done-for-us-lately, “Playoff Jimmy” has been quite real.

“I love that gnarly version of Jimmy,” Spoelstra said late Friday, “but you get that regardless. I just think people are paying a lot more attention to him now that we’ve won some games in the postseason the last few years.”

More Celtics culture these days: In just two crushing quarters – the third in Game 1, the fourth in Game 2 – Boston has been outscored 82-47. In the other six, they had a 174-152 advantage. That might appeal to coach Joe Mazzulla, who mentioned “quarters won” as if this were the old Continental Basketball Association, but it will push his team to a quick ouster unless it can avoid such sinkhole periods.

Jayson Tatum ostensibly is Boston’s star, with Jaylen Brown a notch below. The former finished fourth in Kia MVP voting this season and earned All-NBA 1st Team status, while the latter landed on the second team. But Tatum, who saved his team last round with a flurry in the fourth in Game 6 and 51 to dump Philadelphia in Game 7, has no field goals in the final quarters here. Brown is 4-for-12 in the fourth so far.

GameTime discusses the Celtics' struggles in Game 2 and what the team needs to change in order to get back into this series.

As a group, the Celtics looked stymied by Miami’s zone defense and overmatched against its tenacity in generating second and third chances. If this is a direct result of Heat culture, then this seems a by-product of Celtics culture of late.

Mazzulla conceded the “discipline and mindset” battle to the Heat Friday, a staggering mental surrender for a home team already down in a series. Anything short of a full reversal in Game 3, doing on Miami’s court what was just done twice on theirs, might as well be a white flag.

“This team has a real decision to make,” Williams said. “The decision is going to be whether we are going to come back and really set the tone for the rest of this year and make a statement, or are we going to come out and lay down?”

Rest of this year? Boston had better focus on the rest of this week and go from there.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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