BOSTON — A parade of Celtics employees approached Jayson Tatum at his locker after losing a second straight game to open the Eastern Conference finals against the eighth-seeded Miami Heat.
“We have to win both games in Miami. That’s the job.”
“Crazier stories have been written.”
Following Friday’s 111-105 loss at the Heat, Tatum sat down with the task of winning four of five games in the series after finally exiting the locker room with 80 minutes left at the final buzzer.
“It’s a challenge,” said Tatum, who ran his fourth-quarter shooting numbers to 0-for-3 from the field through two games. “There’s no point in being sad here, right? They came in and won two games. They played well. You give them credit, but we’re not dead or anything. We’ve got a great chance. I’m still super confident, everybody’s super confident, And we have to get ready for Game 3.”
Next ball tips off Sunday at Miami (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
There was plenty of blame for Friday’s loss: first-year Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla’s stubbornness against veteran Heat contender Erik Spoelstra, publicly insisting that his every move and his every move was perfect, the level of in-game adjustments; One year his players failed to score every possession, the same shortcoming costing them the championship; Grant Williams challenges Jimmy Butler.
But one factor in blowing another double-digit lead rises above all others.
“It’s a series of discipline and mentality,” Mazzulla said, “so it’s mental from the standpoint of who can make the right plays at the right time, who can make simple plays, win those details and edges.
“So, yeah, it’s definitely mental.”
At some point, that’s who you are, and the Celtics have delivered clutch playoff games multiple times, including last year’s conference finals against the Heat. Miami has high hopes for its ability to close out stretches of close games, as does Boston’s penchant for losing late.
What the Mazzulla game plan says, not what the game says. The latest example came when Al Horford replaced Robert Williams III with 7:41 left in the game’s final stretch, as the 36-year-old dropped his shooting percentage to 5-of-29 from 3-point range (17.2%). Six games and avoiding attempts to make it worse. He was shocked, and Williams was the more active and efficient player all night.
Did the Celtics consider riding him instead? “No,” Mazzulla said. “Al has finished every game he’s played.”
With a minute left and the Heat up by three, Boston’s 89-77 lead was erased long after Bam Adebayo handled Horford for an offensive rebound and uncontested dunk that pushed Miami’s advantage to two possessions for the first time. The opening minutes of the third quarter.
Meanwhile, Spoelstra troubled Jaylen Brown (16 points on 7-of-23 shooting) with a variety of looks, including a zone defense they’ve seen countless times before from the Heat.
“We haven’t figured it out in terms of how to exploit it from the floor every time,” said Brown, who is now 2-for-13 from distance in the series. “We have to recognize certain situations. Credit to them.”
Two nights after Tatum and Brown combined for five fourth-quarter turnovers, they committed three more in Friday’s final frame and gifted the Heat nearly as many. Clinging to a 98-94 advantage with five minutes to play, Brown cruised. With the score tied at 100-100, Marcus Smart dropped the ball. Tatum got out of control on Butler several plays later, and the Heat converted all three of Boston’s best players.
Miami has scored 70 points on 18 offensive rebounds and 30 Celtics turnovers in two games. Seventy.
Rob Williams scored seven of his 13 points in the fourth quarter and grabbed just three rebounds in 23 minutes. “Time is running out. We don’t have time for these messes.”
Then came Grant Williams, who took over Payton Pritchard’s minutes in Game 2 — something most everyone adjusted to late in the second half of Game 1. He played well until he provoked Butler. The Celtics took a 98-87 lead with 6:37 left. Butler backed up Williams in the paint and scored on him from seven feet out and drew a foul. Before Butler made his free throw, he went forehead to forehead with Williams, and the mismatched pair received double technicals.
On Miami’s next possession, Butler scored on Williams again, this time from five yards out.
As the game slipped away from the Celtics, Williams took it upon himself to respond, forcing an ill-advised and foul shot on the big Adebayo. Butler targeted Williams on the next two possessions and drilled two pull-up jumpers to turn a two-point deficit into a 102-100 advantage for Miami.
Butler soon left the court It means nationality Television viewers“They thought he was the answer. Come on. That’s your answer to the Jimmy Butler problem? That’s their answer? Come on. That can’t be the answer.”
Whether Butler would have bullied the Celtics regardless of the trash talk is debatable, but the whole brouhaha was emblematic of Boston’s low-key mentality. The Celtics act like they’ve won when they don’t. The Heat understand that if they don’t stop pulling, Boston will let go of the ropes. The Celtics built double-digit leads in the second, third and fourth quarters, and each time they gave them back.
“We’ve got to do better,” Tatum said. “We’ve had double-digit leads in both games, and turnovers changed momentum or offensive rebounds led to 3s and changed momentum. Those plays, when we’re up 12, they can go 15, and they’ll go on. An 8-0 run, and now it’s four. Now. , the momentum has changed. We’ve stepped up. We’ve got to make those winning plays better in those situations.”
Harder to do than to say. Not only will the Celtics need to win four of their next five games, but they’ll need to win them all decisively, because when the score is close, we’ve seen the script many times before. Boston may be the more talented team, but the Heat are mentally and physically tough under pressure.
“We’ve got to come out and fight. Play basketball,” Brown said, trying to convince himself the Celtics can rebound. 0-2 results in 93% of the deficit. “In these two games, they’ve been able to come out on top, but who’s to say we can’t come out on top in the next two games? We’ve got to be ready to play basketball. We can’t. Losing hope. It’s the top four. We’ve got to make a great story.”