Inside the Boston Celtics, a legit championship contender, lives a clumsy, messy, downright dumbfounding team. When the Struggle Celtics come out, they drive into traffic, force bad shots, throw the ball away, bite on pump fakes, commit silly fouls and make the game much more complicated than it needs to be.
That version of the Celtics was on display far too often during their 18-21 start, in which their offense ranked 22nd in the NBA. After that, though, and especially after the front office acquired Derrick White at the trade deadline, the Struggle Celtics have shown up only sporadically. For more than four months, Boston has been elite at both ends, and the team is in the Eastern Conference finals because, most of the time, it appears to have broken its bad habits.
To borrow a term from his former boss in San Antonio, Celtics coach Ime Udoka always seems to have appropriate fear of the Struggle Celtics making an appearance. Leading up to Game 1 against the Miami Heat on Tuesday, he talked to the team about how the previous round started -- coming off a sweep of the Brooklyn Nets, they didn't react well to the pressure defense of the comparatively big and tough Milwaukee Bucks, losing the opener in a sea of turnovers and ill-advised shots.
Boston started this round much more encouragingly. At halftime, it led 62-54, having scored 126.5 points per 100 possessions and piled up 42 points in the paint despite the absence of Al Horford, who is in the league's health and safety protocols, and Marcus Smart, who suffered a mid-foot sprain in Game 7 against Milwaukee. Jayson Tatum was hitting just about every shot he put up, Robert Williams III was finishing everything around the rim and Miami's shooters were not getting loose. It looked a lot more like the Nets series than the Bucks series.
Before the third quarter began, though, Udoka anticipated how the Heat would respond. "We talked about it at halftime: They're going to increase the physicality," Udoka said. That is exactly what happened, and Boston handled it as poorly as possible. Miami started the second half on a 22-2 run, and it outscored the Celtics 39–14 in the third quarter en route to a 118-107 win.
Those 12 minutes were way worse than any stretch of the first game against Milwaukee, worse than the disappointing Game 3, even worse than the fourth-quarter collapse in Game 5. Tatum turned the ball over six times in the quarter, Brown twice, and the team missed 13 of its 15 shots. On the other end, Jimmy Butler scored 17 points, outscoring Boston all by himself.
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"It flipped very quickly," Udoka said, following the 118-107 loss. "We just lost our composure. We won three quarters other than that, but obviously that one's going to stand out. We semi-bounced back in the fourth and started to play well again and match their physicality, but... that's tough to overcome."
Udoka called timeout as soon as the Heat took the lead. Smart and Grant Williams urged the team to regroup, to avoid getting frustrated, to not allow the run to snowball. It snowballed anyway. The Celtics "kind of reverted back for one quarter," Udoka said, "and it cost us."
"I think we just kind of went away from what was working in the first half," Tatum said.
In a 33-second stretch in the middle of the quarter, Tatum committed three consecutive live-ball turnovers, all of which led directly to Heat buckets in transition.
"Throughout the course of the playoffs, we've done a great job of responding to runs after calling timeout, things like that," Tatum said. "But for whatever reason we didn't today. And I'll be the first one to say I take the blame for that. I gotta lead better, I gotta play better, especially in those moments. And I'm just looking forward to responding next game."
On separate occasions Butler got Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith up in the air with a shot fake, then drew a shooting foul. Butler finished with 41 points, 17 of them at the free throw line. In the third quarter, he shot 9 for 10 from the line.
Brown described Boston as "out of sorts" in the third quarter and said the Celtics let the game slip away, adding that they need to be "more poised" and "more disciplined" when things are not going their way.
"We were kind of standing around watching," Brown said. "And that's not what we do. We gotta get in there, get in the mix, be more physical, match their physicality, match their intensity. And we didn't."
Udoka lamented that the Celtics had been looking for foul calls, were "muscled around in the post" and had given the Heat opportunities for second-chance points. Mostly, though, he brought up all the same things he'd mentioned after losses to the Bucks: Getting sped up, failing to make simple reads, taking too long to get rid of the ball when the help comes.
"What we always preach is don't play in a crowd," he said. "You draw two or three [defenders], find your outlets. And we did that extremely well in the first half, finding guys for kickout 3s and dump-offs at the basket."
These are "simple cleanups," he said. While Horford and Smart are veterans, Udoka said that their absence was no excuse for the mistakes. He didn't use fatigue as an excuse, either. The message, essentially, was that Boston had collectively, temporarily lost its mind. If this is the case, then all it must do in Game 2 on Thursday is stay sane.
Based on how Boston played for most of Monday's game and for most of the season, Udoka is correct to frame it this way. The deeper it gets in the playoffs, though, the less it can afford these lapses, particularly if they are going to last a full quarter. The Celtics have shown repeatedly that they can execute their offense against top-tier defenses that load up on their stars. But that doesn't guarantee that they will continue to do it. As long as they're competing for the title, they are also in a battle with themselves. If they have truly grown out of their worst tendencies, they will prove it.