Just like Game 1, the Boston Celtics seemed like they had it under control. This time, though, they stretched the lead all the way to 17 points in the second quarter, getting essentially anything they wanted offensively. And this time, the turnaround was quicker and more extreme: The Miami Heat went on a 20-4 run in the third quarter and took a seven-point lead into the final frame.
And just like Game 1, Miami held off the No. 3-seeded Celtics on Thursday, taking them completely out of rhythm with a combination of its 2-3 zone and switching. The Heat mixed in some full-court pressure, too, and made Boston look like a totally different team than it was early in the game.
To their credit, the Celtics responded on both ends after their cold stretch. Miami missed 10 of its first 12 shots in the final frame, and Boston went on a 15-2 run. Once again, however, the Heat persevered, coming away with a 106-101 win and taking a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals thanks largely to late-game heroics from guard Goran Dragic.
With less than two minutes left, the Celtics played a near-perfect defensive possession until Dragic hit an off-the-dribble 3 over big man Daniel Theis to give the Heat a 100-95 lead. Dragic, who helped the Heat stay afloat in the series opener, hit another jumper over Theis on the next possession. He finished with 25 points on 10-for-19 shooting, plus five assists.
"Goran, you know, their defense is really good," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "It's really good, they can flatten you out. And sometimes that's what is needed. For some games, you just need to create something out of nothing, and Goran was able to do that down the stretch."
Boston's Jaylen Brown hit a pair of clutch 3s, but missed one in the corner that would have tied it with 15 seconds left.
Here are three takeaways from Game 2:
1. The turnaround
It is difficult to overstate how comfortable Boston looked on offense for most of the first half, especially in comparison to the end of Tuesday's game and the second-round slugfest that preceded it. The Heat are typically a tough and versatile defensive team, but Spoelstra thought the Celtics "didn't feel us, notice us," he said. Miami was down 60-43 before a pair of short jumpers in the final minute of the second quarter cut the deficit to 13 points.
"It felt like we were down 30," Spoelstra said.
It is also difficult to overstate how thoroughly the Heat dominated during the comeback. If I were writing these takeaways before the run began, this one would be about the resurgence of Kemba Walker, who danced around the Heat's defense to the tune of 14 points on 6-for-10 shooting in the first half. Two days earlier, Walker had said he was "just playing terrible, to be honest," as he had been cold dating back to the box-and-one coverage he saw in the previous series.
Walker was almost invisible in the third quarter, despite playing every second of it. As a team, Boston went 4-for-12 in those 12 minutes, and the Heat forced seven turnovers.
"I know everybody wants to talk about a scheme," Spoelstra said. "For us, it's disposition, it's effort, making tough plays, making multiple efforts, regardless of the scheme. And we were more committed there in the second half."
It started with an alley-oop dunk from Bam Adebayo, assisted by Dragic. Adebayo had 15 points in the third, just two shy of the Celtics' total, shooting 7-for-8 and punishing Boston as a roll man on several consecutive possessions during a brief Enes Kanter stint. He was just as active on the other end, flying around the court like few others his size can.
Boston coach Brad Stevens said "we pulled apart and we didn't play well" in the third quarter, insisting that it wasn't about the zone. He said players were "emotional" after the loss, but didn't offer many details on this:
Marcus Smart is screaming at someone in the Celtics locker room — or several people. The yelling continues as Smart exits the locker room, swearing.— Malika Andrews (@malika_andrews) September 18, 2020
2. Shootin' Robinson
One key development for Miami, which could go overlooked because it didn't coincide with the comeback: Duncan Robinson got going. The sharpshooter only logged 17 minutes in Game 1 because of foul trouble and went 2-for-7 from deep, finding it difficult to shake free on the perimeter. Less than two minutes into Game 2, he hit back-to-back 3s, and he followed that up with a third a couple of minutes later.
Robinson is one of the most dangerous shooters in the NBA because he lets it fly from almost anywhere, at any angle, with a ridiculously quick release. His movement away from the ball can make a defense dizzy, and he ran off screens with a purpose on Thursday.
"His routes were very assertive," Spoelstra said. "So whether he's making shots or whether they're chasing him off, that's critical to our offense. And it opens up other things. It gives us a little bit more variety to our menu. But yeah, he was much more aggressive without the ball. He was burning more calories, for sure."
Robinson did what Dragic did in the opener, helping the Heat hang around when nothing else was going well. He scored 12 of his 18 points in the first quarter and finished the game with four assists to go with his six 3-pointers. Having him as a source of offense is an incredible luxury, and Boston could surely use someone like that when it is stuck in the mud. Which leads us to...
3. Boston's blahs
The Celtics knew the zone was coming before the series started. They knew that Adebayo specifically causes problems with his ability to guard smaller players, and they knew that the Heat have plenty of practice switching 1-through-5. Stevens didn't like how the offense stagnated late in Game 1, how they resorted to difficult isolation plays rather than playing to their identity. But this was worse.
"We're not beating this team if we're not completely connected on both ends of the court," Stevens said. "So we've gotta get back to being that, which we've been at times, but right now they're a better team and we're going to have to fight to get back into this series."
I was actually impressed with Boston's attack for most of Game 1. Jayson Tatum took a bunch of his patented side-step 3s and the Celtics were mostly poised against the zone. The first half of Game 2 seemed like a continuation of that, with hotter shooting.
But Tatum got sloppy as Game 2 progressed, and so did the offense, as if Miami had lulled the Celtics into a false sense of security. Diagnosing the problems in an in-game interview, Stevens said that they simply stopped playing.
Tatum and Marcus Smart combined for four turnovers apiece in the second half, and Smart took several ill-advised shots. Both teams went through wild fluctuations in terms of offensive fluidity and defensive intensity in this game, but in Boston's case, this is a worrying trend that needs to be reversed quickly.
The Celtics have been prone to long lulls against both the Toronto Raptors and the Heat in the playoffs. These are formidable opponents, who change their schemes and combine physicality and athleticism with high basketball IQ. But Boston had the fourth-best offensive rating in the NBA during the regular season, and their biggest supposed strength is that they have multiple playmaking options, so defenses can't key in on any one of them.
This is where the Celtics are feeling the absence of Gordon Hayward, but using that as an excuse won't help matters. Ahead of Game 3 on Saturday, they better hope that Hayward is back and that he is the answer. If not, they desperately need to figure out another one.