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The Celtics responded emphatically in Game 2; Can Miami return the favor in Boston?

Miami will now have to deliver a counter-blow in Boston to essentially save their season — can they do it?

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat - Game Two Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Well, we got a series, folks.

As the famous Pat Riley adage reads: The playoff series doesn’t really start until the road team wins a game.

We’ve seen series where it goes seven with each team winning at home, and we’ve also seen series where the first road win doesn’t come until the final game of a series — similarly to Miami’s most recent one against the Philadelphia 76ers. But per the aforementioned phrase: The series is now officially on.

Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics was truly a tale of two halves. At the conclusion of the opening half, the Celtics went into the intermission up eight, 62-54.

All-Star wing Jayson Tatum led the C’s with 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting, four rebounds, five assists, a steal and a block, playing 22:47 of the 24 available first-half minutes. Without defensive player of the year Marcus Smart (mid-foot sprain) and 35-year-old forward Al Horford, who was ruled out due to health and safety protocols just hours before the game, Boston depended on Tatum — a defensive stalwart — hyper-athletic center Robert Williams III (returning from injury), Grant Williams, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White and Aaron Nesmith to piece together consistent stops and bog down the Heat offense.

For the most part, they held their ground. While the Celtics shot 59.1 percent from the floor with five 3s (on 14 attempts), the aforementioned bunch limited Miami to 48.8 percent shooting while forcing seven turnovers. The Heat, who led the NBA in 3-point percentage in the regular season, shot just 4-of-14 from distance and didn’t carry the same intensity and attention-to-detail that we’re typically accustomed to them doing. I mean, Boston fashioned together 42 points in the paint and was getting whatever they wanted at will. That’s completely un-Heat-like to permit in a single game, let alone one half.

Then the third quarter occurred.

Miami tightened the screws, put on their hardhats and went to work. They exited halftime on a demonstrative 22-2 run, outscored Boston 39-14 in the third quarter — their largest quarter advantage in playoff franchise history — and completely rammed through the C’s on the back of Jimmy Butler.

“It’s crazy, because [Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra] didn’t have to say too much,” Butler said after the game. “We already knew what we were doing wrong — turning the ball over and not getting back. So we talked about it, and we came out and was like, ‘You know what, we are at home, we have to play better basketball. We have to play better as a team.’ We did that.”

The 32-year-old superstar totaled 41 points, nine rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks, overwhelming Boston with 27 second-half points and repeatedly applied pressure and punctured their attack on both ends en-route to a 118-107 victory.

Fast forward now to Game 2 Thursday, with Smart and Horford both active.

Boston’s boisterous starting five — Smart, Brown, Tatum, Horford and Williams, which recorded a league-best plus-24.3 NET Rating in the regular season (min. 500 poss), per Cleaning the Glass — came together for just the fifth time this postseason. Miami raced out to an 18-8 lead over the first 4:31. It netted six of their first nine shots — two from Butler, two from P.J. Tucker and one apiece from Max Strus and Gabe Vincent.

The Heat intruded the interior with multiple paint touches, were in the right positions for second-chance looks and ultimately capitalized on lackadaisical Boston rotations within that limited time frame.

“Wake up,” what Celtics head coach Ime Udoka said his timeout message was when his team was down 15-8 early to Miami, he said after the game. “We were slow to react for the first few shots — switching too low on their shooters — and that’s something we didn’t do a great job of last game. We understand who they are, who their scorers are, who the shooters are and how we need to switch accordingly according to the personnel. So just a simple message that we need to wake up and react a little bit quicker.”

Collectively, Boston did exactly that, and then some.

The sleeping giant awoke emphatically and subsequently augmented a 60-21 run from the 7:29 mark of the opening period to 1:16 mark of the second-quarter — an 18-minute, 13-second stretch — to all but put the game out of reach, heading into the break up 25 without even coming close to relinquishing its sizable lead.

Over that pivotal stretch, paired with active, connected defense — the C’s featured profound ball-movement that led to quality shot-making. They only made three triples, but converted on 63.6 percent of their shot attempts; 14 of their 21 field goals were assisted with just four turnovers over that stretch.

Their scoring barrage largely came off of crisp ball movement — making the right pass plus the extra pass, or two — spearheaded by Smart, Brown and Tatum, three of their most prominent shot-creators. Even if the ball pinging around the court didn’t always result in makes, the process in which the offense flowed was tenable.

This time, the deficit was too great for Miami to oscillate Boston’s 127-102 onslaught on Thursday night. The Celtics shot 51.2 percent, including 20-of-40 from distance compared to Miami’s ghastly 10-of-34 mark from 3-point range. Boston’s aforementioned trio of Brown-Tatum-Smart were at the forefront of its triumphant victory — But Smart, in his return, stood out the most.

“As always, [Marcus Smart] sets the tone,” Udoka said after the game. “[Smart was] defensive player of the year for a reason — the ability to switch onto bigger bodies and [he’s] just another good defender to throw at Butler and Adebayo and some of those guys and not have to worry about [Miami] trying to pick out certain matchups. He brings so much physicality every night and kind of gets everybody else in-line.”

Smart made a noticeable two-way imprint, tallying 24 points on 8-of-22 shooting — including 5-of-12 from 3-point range — with nine rebounds, 12 assists (to one turnover), three steals and one block with a plus-31, the third-highest plus-minus on the team. (Pritchard led the team at plus-39.)

“For me today, it was just come out be as aggressive as you can and not let the same [Game 1] mistake happen,” Smart said. “We played against a really, really, really, really good Miami team. You make mistakes — they make you pay for it. We got to limit those mistakes and that was my mindset coming in.”

Tatum led Boston with 27 points on 8-of-13 shooting with four 3s while Brown recorded 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting and four triples as well. Horford added 10 points on a perfect 4-of-4 shooting, three boards, three assists, one steal and one block with a bevy of good defensive stops to help flatten Miami’s offense, which was held to 86.5 points per 100 half-court plays (24th percentile), per Cleaning The Glass.

“It wasn’t surprising to see how well we guarded with our guys back,” Udoka said. “We pride ourselves on being one of the tougher teams. And we know if we match that, we’d be in good shape tonight. Not much needs to be said. Everybody saw it.”

I could find more, but to spare space (and, potentially, your eyes), here’s just a few not-so-fun stats from Game 2:

  • The Heat surrendered 136.6 points per 100 possessions, per CTG — its worst mark (including the playoffs) of the season by nearly five points. Its previous worst was Nov. 29 against Denver (131.9 DRTG).
  • There was only one other time in franchise history — Game 2 last year against Milwaukee — when a Heat opponent converted at least 20 3s on 40-plus attempts in a playoff game.
  • As Sports Illustrated’s Rohan Nadkarni pointed out on Twitter, the Heat’s last three home playoff losses have come by an average of **checks notes** 23.7 points?!?! Yep.

“You definitely have to credit Boston,” Spoelstra said. “It’s not that they just came in with great urgency and physicality — they did have that for sure — they also played well. They played really well on both ends. We know what they’re capable of defensively. They’ve done this to some very good offenses ... They came out and were very disruptive and got us out of our normal rhythm and flow. And then the shot-making on the other end is very, very tough to overcome.”

Can Miami return the favor in Boston?

For a reminder, here’s the series schedule:

Eastern Conference Finals Schedule

Game 1 Tuesday, May 17 Boston @ Miami 8:30 p.m. ET ESPN
Game 2 Thursday, May 19 Boston @ Miami 8:30 p.m. ET ESPN
Game 3 Saturday, May 21 Miami @ Boston 8:30 p.m. ET ABC
Game 4 Monday, May 23 Miami @ Boston 8:30 p.m. ET ABC
Game 5* Wednesday, May 25 Boston @ Miami 8:30 p.m. ET ESPN
Game 6* Friday, May 27 Miami @ Boston 8:30 p.m. ET ESPN
Game 7* Sunday, May 29 Boston @ Miami 8:30 p.m. ET ESPN
Game Details

To the question — personally, well, my answer is yes and no.

Yes, I think Miami can string together stops and rain enough 3s to beat Boston on the road. No, I don’t see it happening where Miami completely controls roughly 43 of the game’s 48 minutes en-route to an assertive 25-point victory, like Boston did tonight.

In many ways, Thursday **could’ve** been labeled a must-win for Miami. Now, that’s ridiculous — on the surface — to say in Game 2 of a seven-game series when you’ve already won Game 1. Miami was a good road team in the regular season, but the results haven’t been as kind to them — marginally — in the postseason, albeit a much smaller sample.

For perspective, in the regular season, they were 24-17, sporting a plus-3.3 NET rating — the fourth-best in the league — with a 57.8 true-shooting percentage; in the playoffs, they’re 2-3 (1-1 v. ATL, 1-2 v. PHI) with a 0.6 road NET rating (3rd-best!) on 53.2 percent true shooting, the fourth-worst mark.

None of this means it’s going to be impossible to beat Boston — who’s 4-2 with a 8.3 NET rating at home this postseason after showcasing itself as one of the best home teams in the regular season — in the Garden.

Again, a counter to every (cockamamie) number I just provided above is: We just finished Game 2 of a seven-game series! That’s a perfectly plausible rebuttal. Teams can fare bad against teams in the regular season or in a particular environment just to completely reign superior over said teams when it matters most (I’m looking at you, 2021-22 Golden State Warriors).

Anything can happen in a seven-game series!!!!!! Good or otherwise!!!!

All that said, was Game 2 at least a little worrisome and/or eye-opening? Yes. Is there obvious things — on both sides — to clean up? Yes. Can Miami still win this series? Also yes! I think all can be — and, frankly, are — true and fair to acknowledge.

Miami has a top-15 coach all-time, a proverbial superstar in Jimmy Butler, who’s consistently answered the bell at this time of the season, and an oftentimes fearless supporting cast surrounding him that will need to help him out if Miami wants any chance at its fourth-ever NBA Title.

For the second-straight game, the Heat offense was over-reliant on Butler, who finished with 29 points on 11-of-18 shooting, four boards, three dimes and a steal. He attempted to will Miami back in the third quarter, scoring 16 of the team’s 26 third-quarter points and trimming the deficit to 16, but the valiant effort was far from enough.

“[Butler]’s got to do whatever we need and that’s going to be like A-to-Z on the menu,” Spoelstra said. “We’re facing a very good defense, so we have to do things with great detail with purpose. And they can flatten you out just like we can flatten things out.”

The six-time All-Star took blame for not getting his teammates more involved after the game.

“I think I got to do a better job of getting everybody else involved, if I’m being brutally honest,” Butler said. “I got to find that fine median, that fine line, in-between when to be aggressive and when to make sure that I can get guys open. I’ve got to basically do [Kyle Lowry’s] job and making sure guys are in spots where they can be comfortable and be the most successful. That’s on me. I don’t think that’s on Spo, I don’t think that’s on [Bam Adebayo] — I think it’s my job because I got the ball a lot of times to make sure that everybody’s comfortable and getting the shots they need.

“I think I got a bit selfish on the offensive end. I gotta look to use my teammates — they’ve been there for me all year long. And I gotta get back to that because whenever they’re scoring, whenever they’re aggressive, we’re much better team.”

Outside of Butler, three players — Gabe Vincent (14), Victor Oladipo (14) and Tyler Herro (11) — recorded double figure scoring. While he’s been outstanding on the defensive end for several games now, Bam Adebayo (still) hasn’t consistently found an offensive groove, averaging just 8.0 points on five shots through two games.

It’s not a crazy thing to see the Heat are missing a healthy Lowry right now, even though Vincent’s been one of Miami’s best players this series, averaging 15.5 points on 50.0/46.7/100 shooting splits (71.2 TS%) this series and 11.3 points on 60.8 TS% in the eight games Lowry’s missed this postseason. Outside of Butler, he and Herro (14.5 PPG, 52.2 TS%) are the only two Heat players (!!!) that are averaging double figures through two ECF contests.

Miami inked Lowry last offseason to help take the primary creation burden off Butler in these situations. Now that Lowry’s hurt without any timetable to return, Butler’s got to carry a big burden once again against arguably the best defense in the league — similar to what we saw two years ago in the bubble in the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers when Goran Dragic and Bam were injured.

Getting more requisite external production from other players — specifically Adebayo — is paramount and will go a long way in deciding the imminent winner of this series. Adebayo can’t resort to being the second- or third-best big; for Miami to have the best chance, he needs to be the second- or third-best player in the entire series.

Spoelstra is a mad-man and will adjust accordingly — will they work? I’m not sure. Only time will tell. We knew heading into the series that these two mammoths, these two East mega-stalwarts would throw haymakers like it was Ali-Frazier and essentially empty the kitchen sink against one another.

Boston threw a considerable blow in the first half of Game 1 and whaled figurative fisticuffs pretty much all of Game 2. Miami’s opening counter-blow was in the second-half of Game 1, but now will have to quickly counter again against a stronger-and-healthier Boston team in their own building to virtually save their season.

“That’s definitely part of the process in the playoffs. You get to this point of the conference finals, you just have very good teams. You have teams without many weaknesses. It’s great competition,” Spoelstra said. “This only counts as one (loss). That’s what the experienced players in the locker room and staff understand. We don’t like it and they played extremely well. We have two really good teams and we just have to figure some things out.”