While Boston’s Marcus Smart was making sure he won the fifth quarter Thursday night – jacking up decibels and temperatures in the Celtics’ locker room, based on multiple ear-witness accounts in the Disney bubble – it was too late for him and his teammates to do anything about the third quarter.
That was the lethal one. The game-breaker. The reason for Smart’s and reportedly other Celtics’ post-game anger. And the proof of that old saw that the playoffs are all about adjustments.
Coach Erik Spoelstra and the Miami Heat adjusted midway through Game 2 like the Eastern Conference champions they’ll be in a few days, if the Celtics don’t adjust to the adjustments starting Saturday.
> Game 3: Celtics vs. Heat, Saturday at 8:30 ET on ESPN
A stingy zone defense, a jump-started Bam Adebayo, a late push of freelance creativity from Goran Dragic and the Heat’s increasingly predictable resiliency flipped what began as an assured Boston performance. All that Heat freshness after halftime gave the south Floridians a 2-0 lead in the series, getting them halfway to the 2020 Finals before the West participant Lakers and Nuggets have even laced up their sneakers.
The Celtics, after losing Game 1 in overtime, looked to have found their karma and their Kemba through two quarters Thursday. They led early, and pushed ahead by 17 before getting to the break at 60-47. Point guard Kemba Walker, after a cockeyed shooting night in the opener, was leading the way with 14 points on 6-for-10 from the field. The Celtics were hitting 58.1 percent as a group, while Miami, beyond Duncan Robinson’s 4-for-9 shooting on 3-pointers, had little working at either end.
“Well, Boston was really getting us on our heels in the first half,” Spoelstra said, “and I don’t think anybody was in any kind of rhythm or disposition defensively and a lot of it was them. They were backing us up and everything.”
So? Halftime, that interlude for studio shows, bathroom breaks and on-the-fly fixes. The Heat staff found some, throwing a zone in which its frontcourt guys often played out top. Even a little effectiveness helped Miami get back to playing in its personality, the scariest thing for Boston as this series plays out.
Said Spoelstra: “I know everybody wants to talk about a scheme, but for us it’s disposition, effort, making multiple plays and multiple efforts, regardless of the scheme, and we were more committed there in the second half.”
The third quarter began innocently enough, Boston still up 67-52 at the 9:43 mark. But Adebayo had been activated after a quiet first half (4 points, 5 rebounds). The Miami center got a block, a couple of dunks, a steal and two more dunks in a span of less than four minutes.
“Coach came up to me in the third, was like, ‘I need All-Defensive team now,’” Adebayo said. “From there, I had to start it on defense and then my offense started flowing with it.”
It was Adebayo’s floater at 4:17 that wiped Boston’s lead completely. The Celtics got up only 12 shots in the quarter — seven turnovers against that Miami defense cost them possessions — and made four. Heck, the Heat were 5-for-12 on threes alone.
“We pulled apart and we didn’t play well,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “We’re not beating this team if we’re not completely connected on both ends of the court. Got to get back to being that.”
Zones often turn an offensive team passive, searching for perfect shots rather than attacking along the baseline or at the rim. Stevens didn’t think his guys were stymied — they had seen a variation of it in the previous round from Toronto — but it got the results Spoelstra sought.
“It’s a hard zone to play against [but] we did play well against it in Game 1,” Stevens said. “We played with way better pace … So we’ll go back and look at it, figure out if it was a technical thing or a pace thing or an execution thing or just not-as-focused-on-the-important-stuff thing.”
For those following along, this was only the latest in Miami’s series of knockout-punch quarters. In Game 1 on Tuesday, their 35-23 fourth quarter erased the Celtics’ 12-point lead through three, making the Heat’s OT victory possible. One round earlier, they seized absolute control against Milwaukee in Game 3 by undressing the Bucks 40-13 in the fourth.
This time the damage came in the third, and Dragic was the difference in the fourth. Boston’s last real push built a 94-89 lead, but it was down to two when Dragic returned with 3:17 left. He scored seven of Miami’s final 11 points, controlling the ball and the pace in the time left.
Said Spoelstra: “You just have to create something out of nothing [sometimes], and Goran was able to do that down the stretch.”
Now it’s on Stevens and the Celtics to create something out of nothing so far in the series. The NBA announced after the game that there will be three days between Games 3 (Saturday) and 4 (Wednesday), and sitting around that long in a 3-0 hole would likely not improve the moods in Boston’s locker room.
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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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