Celtics respond to a bad quarter with a full heat beatdown

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Celtics respond to a bad quarter with a full heat beatdown

One might have thought that the Miami Heat’s 22-2 run early in the third quarter against the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals lasted two years given the public reaction to the series opener.

Public opinion mistook those six minutes for an extension of the 2020 Conference Finals as if the Celtics were the same team that bullied the Heat in the Bubble. As if they hadn’t defeated Kevin Durant’s Brooklyn Nets and eliminated Giannis Antetokounmpo’s defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in a Game 7. As if they hadn’t missed Marcus Smart and Al Horford, the brawn and brains behind the NBA’s best defense.

Even Heat star Jimmy Butler said after Game 1, “I expect to do that every quarter from now on,” as if fellow Celtics Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were forgetting how to play basketball again.

Only, Smart and Horford returned to smother the Heat defensively, Tatum and Brown rediscovered their glory, and Boston reminded everyone after a poor quarter in Game 1 of a best-of-seven series that left Miami for all four Quarter dominated, no blanket assumptions to be made of a 127-102 win in Game 2.

“It wasn’t surprising to see how well we marked at the back with our boys,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka.

The Celtics turned an early 10-point deficit into an 11-point lead late in the first quarter on Thursday. They increased the lead to 70-45 at halftime and led by as much as 34 points in the second half. The Miami starters didn’t see the court in the fourth quarter, prioritizing recovery for a road Game 3 in another 48 hours.

“They came out and hit us in the mouth and we didn’t know how to react to that,” Miami’s Bam Adebayo said.

The discussion about Butler was lost as “a top 5 NBA player once the postseason begins‘, even if he ended the evening with 29 points, the majority of which came with the score already set. No one sang Butler’s praises as he shot 29.7% and the Bucks swept his heat in the first round last season. His 41 points and 17 free throws in Game 1 on Tuesday were as remarkable as they were untenable.

Nowhere was Adebayo’s stranglehold on the Celtics, which originated with his game-winning Tatum block in Game 1 of the 2020 East Finals and resurfaced with his wedgie block from Brown during the third-quarter run in Game 1 of that series. Boston got everything it wanted offensively in Game 2. Tatum and Brown combined for 51 points on 30 shots to lead six Celtics in double digits in a night of 51% shooting.

Things change from year to year, game to game, even quarter to quarter in the NBA.

The healthy return of Al Horford and Marcus Smart propelled the Boston Celtics to a dominant win in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The Celtics have now outplayed the heat by 34 points outside of the six minutes early in the third quarter in Game 1. They’re averaging 121.2 points per 100 possessions in two games against Miami, and their healthy defense only makes us wonder how the Heat could possibly be manufacturing points beyond Butler’s aggression.

“It was obvious after Game 1, third quarter, 39-14, eight of our 16 turnovers, they got a lot of offensive rebounds and Butler got to the free throw line,” Udoka said of his team’s reaction in Game 2. “It was pretty obvious that they were the more physical, more aggressive team and we said, ‘Let’s look at the three quarters and be optimistic about what we did there.’ “If a team just comes out and pushes you, we could get that intensity. We’re proud to be one of the tougher teams, so we knew that if we kept up tonight we’d be in good shape. It didn’t take much be said. Everyone saw it.”

We should be careful about jumping to conclusions the other way after game 2. The series is still tied, and while Boston stole home field advantage Thursday, Miami would host Game 7 if the series goes that far.

Overall, in two games, the Celtics looked like the team that’s been the NBA’s best in six months. Their healthy rotation lost once in the second half of the regular season – by a single possession – and Derrick White missed Game 2 in Miami due to the birth of his first child. They have outperformed opponents by 13.5 points per 100 possessions since January 6th. The gap between their top-tier defense and Miami’s second-tier team is the difference between the Heat and the 16th defense.

“That’s what our team is about,” Horford said. “We’ve been talking about this since January when we really started to delve into it and create that identity and how we wanted to play. This is us.”

We know for sure that the Celtics are tougher than they were two years ago. They are now 4-0 after their playoff losses and are winning those games with a total of 69 points. They kept Durant 13% below his shot percentage in the first round and Antetokounmpo 10% below his in the second round. It’s hard to imagine Butler maintaining his 63% clip across two games, and if he does, it might still not be enough.

“There are really good players and really talented teams in the NBA, but I think the mark of a good team is how you react after losses, especially big ones,” Tatum said. “It just shows the character of the group. We did a really good job for most of the year, responding to heavy losses and situations.”

Health, which appeared to be an issue for the Celtics in Game 1 when Smart was nursing a sprained foot and Horford was stuck in the COVID-19 protocols, is now a serious concern for the Heat. Kyle Lowry’s hamstring sidelined him eight games in the playoffs, and PJ Tucker left Thursday’s loss with a knee injury.

Concerns about the Heat’s entry into the conference finals — Tyler Herro’s defense and the ability of Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin to perform on that stage — still linger as the series heads to Boston. They’ll need far more from Butler’s supporting cast if they’re to avoid going back to Miami 3-1.

On the other hand, we should be careful about deciding a series after a blowout, be it in a quarter or a game.

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Ben Rohrbach is a senior editor at Yahoo Sports. Do you have a tip? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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