It was once again just an upsetting and disappointing loss in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday night. After each meltdown, there is an attempt to try and find the silver lining of some takeaway of the game, but after this one, there is not much to sugar coat about the Celtics’ performance. Yes, Kemba Walker finally had a solid night and Enes Kanter played some decent minutes, but nothing else should matter other than the fact Boston had 20 turnovers in a game they once again lead by double digits.
Game 2 started out like many others the Celtics have played in these past two playoff series. Great defense lead to easy offense and built a healthy lead. It was the same blueprint as Game 1, and then the Heat defense started to clamp down after halftime.
The Celtics started playing sloppy, careless basketball which lead to a big time run by Miami in the third quarter. After that, it felt like the wheels completely came off with Boston turning it over on inbound passes and out of timeouts.
This is unacceptable basketball in the conference finals. The team just flipped the switch in the wrong direction and turned off all intensity they have been known for all season long. The team was content in their big lead and changed the way they closed out the game. Then, next thing you know the Heat were winning, and the Celtics had squandered a 17-point lead.
Specifically, it was the main contributors who suffered from that lack of focus. Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum had five turnovers each and Marcus Smart had four. The difficult part with the turnovers from Tatum and Smart is that four of those came in the second half, lackadaisical play from the guys the Celtics need the most if they expect to win playoff games.
There is definitely a good amount of credit that needs to go to the Miami Heat and how they defended in that second half. The Celtics were killing them when the Heat set up a man-to-man defense especially as Kemba finally got going. Then, they switched to that patented zone defense that the Celtics have really struggled to unlock.
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra went all in on the zone which they had used more than any other team during the season. The Celtics had no answers for this, and it was very similar to how the team looked lost against the Toronto Raptors in the previous series.
The Heat collapse on the ball handler trying to infiltrate the zone and then rapidly bounce back to guard the three-point arc. When someone has to rotate over, another player is always right there to cover each other. It’s impressive team cohesion.
That being said, the Celtics are going to have to find a way of beating this zone if they have any chance of getting back in this series. Coach Spo knows that it is eating the Celtics alive, so he will continue to throw it at the Celtics in spurts. Brad Stevens needs to find a solution to this problem and have the players execute it Saturday night. Even if Stevens draws up the perfect game plan to unlock the zone, it won’t matter if the team gets sloppy and lazy with turnovers across the board.
Again, the plan for the Celtics moving forward will not just be to run it back and hope for a better result. Yes, a few less turnovers could have swung this game, but there are major offensive problems when the Heat switch into that zone. They need to find a scheme to be able to beat it.
One solution could be running the screening action with the wings instead of with Daniel Theis. This would then give the Theis the option to sit back on the baseline and stretch the zone out. If the back line of the zone pushes up to stop the ball handler, they can lob it up to Theis for a dunk. The Celtics executed this well a few times against the Raptors but need to focus on this against the Heat as well. Also, with the screening action running through the wings, it will get them going as cutters or staying back behind the arc for three-pointers.
The bottom line is that the Celtics’ play on Thursday night is inexcusable. It was another double-digit lead squandered away. The team needs to get back to the ways that got them to the Eastern Conference Finals: team basketball and a strong defensive identity. This next game will be a do-or-die game and that first quarter will be the test. If they come out strong with a new mentality, then we may have a series on our hands. If they look dejected, then the Celtics may be bounced from the bubble sooner rather than later.