With their season hanging in the balance, the Boston Celtics dug deep and found an extra gear. Two nights after a tumultuous Game 2 loss prompted locker room turmoil, the Celtics took the Miami Heat to task, maintaining a double digit lead for nearly the entire second half and withstanding a furious Miami charge late to pick up their first win in the Eastern Conference Finals, 117-106.
A resurgent Jaylen Brown led the way for the Celtics, attacking his way to one of his best two-way performances of the postseason thus far. He led Boston scorers with 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting from the field and thrived at the rim against the zone defense that had given the Celtics so much trouble. Jayson Tatum stuffed the stat sheet with 25 points, 15 rebounds and 8 assists, and Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart combined for 41 points of their own. For Miami, Bam Adebayo continued to dominate this matchup with 27 points and 16 rebounds and rookie Tyler Herro added 22 points off the bench.
Gordon Hayward returned to give the Celtics a lift after having missed the previous month of postseason basketball with a severely sprained ankle. He made his return to the court in Stevens’ first substitution with five minutes remaining in the first quarter. Despite the month long layoff, he brought energy in his first shift back, dishing a nice pass to Daniel Theis for a dunk and pulling up for a foul line jumper moments later. Though there was some rust in his scoring touch, he played an excellent all-around game and, perhaps most encouragingly, stayed on the court for 31 minutes on the night.
The Celtics rocketed out of the gate on the offensive end of the court, as areas of concern that contributed to their first two losses saw some deliberate attention early. The attacked the rim with purpose, driving into the teeth of the Miami defense and finishing strong at the rim, and they avoided the turnover trouble that had been plaguing them. Brown in particular seemed invigorated, compiling eight points in the paint to lead the Celtics through the opening minutes.
good to see this guy back on the court pic.twitter.com/pI7LHhHk92— Boston Celtics (@celtics) September 20, 2020
The Celtics entered the second quarter with a 31-22 edge on the scoreboard, and built their yet another double-digit lead (their third in three games) in the opening minutes. Like those before it, this one didn’t last, in large part due to a scoring outburst by Herro, who exploded for 16 points in the period on a number of crisp pull-up threes.
Thought the Heat battled back, the Celtics were more effective on the counterpunch this time around. Their defensive intensity picked up tremendously in the closing minutes of the quarter, leading to a trio of quick fast-break baskets for Tatum and Brown. Reenergized, they went on a run, and entered the locker room leading by 12 at the half, 63-50.
For the Celtics this postseason, it often hasn’t felt like a ball game until the third quarter happens. Against both Toronto and Miami, they’ve struggled to hang onto early leads once the third frame comes around. To open the quarter, the energy finally felt different. They continued to pound the center of Miami’s zone, and slowly but surely edged the lead as high as 19.
Grant Williams deserves a mention for his continued strong play after entering the game in the third quarter as Theis struggled with foul trouble. He helped the Celtics pick apart the Miami zone immediately upon entering the game, nailing a corner three-pointer and sneaking behind Adebayo for a layup. The rookie has seen inconsistent playing time in the postseason, but he was instrumental down the stretch in Game 7 against Toronto, and continues to make an impact whenever called upon.
Of course, it wasn’t going to be that easy. Boston’s offense went cold in the closing minutes of the quarter, and suddenly the Heat came rocketing back, led by some energy from struggling guard Goran Dragic. They cut the Boston lead down to nine, a for a moment, it felt as though the Celtics were on the verge of another collapse. The Celtics rallied, though, and a couple trips to the free throw line for Tatum — including an and-one — restored a 15-point advantage heading into the final quarter of play, 89-74. Yes, they finally won a third quarter.
Boston opened the final quarter with determination, battling their way to a 20-point lead behind strong play on both ends of the court. Boston’s egalitarian offense provided signature moments for seemingly everyone, from a pair of threes from Hayward and Tatum to a strong and-one layup from Smart to a breakaway dunk for Brown.
The inevitable Heat surge came with just under four minutes remaining in the game. With an assist from some offensive rebounding, they broke an 0-of-13 slump from three with some timely shooting from Duncan Robinson, and cut the Boston lead down to 10 with three minutes remaining.
With just over a minute to play, leading 109-101, Brown caught the ball ahead of Robinson, and his elbow made contact with Robinson’s face. The initial call on the floor was an offensive foul, but upon video review, the play was upgraded to a Flagrant 1, awarding the Heat two free throws and possession. Robinson hit one of the two shots, and seconds later Adebayo finished at the rim to cut the lead to five. Smart took a questionable shot with 15 seconds remaining on the shot clock, but drew the foul and connected on both free throws to give Boston a 111-104 edge and prompt a timeout from Erik Spoelstra. Coming out of the timeout, Herro missed a long three-pointer, and the Celtics withstood the surge.
Next up, the Celtics will get a few days off, before looking to even the series at two games apiece in Game 4 on Wednesday at 8:30 PM EST.