Through two losses in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics didn’t look like themselves. After a grueling seven-game series against the defending champion Raptors, the youngest team remaining in the bubble made mental errors, lacked effort, and more so, the togetherness that their head coach has seen all year.
For Brad Stevens, it wasn’t about Boston winning a crucial Game 3 and avoiding an insurmountable 0-3 hole. It was about his team showing their true character after two feckless performances on the playoff stage.
“This result didn’t really matter to me. It was more about what are we going to show ourselves to be. And I thought that we are a really special group, a really good group,” Stevens said. “The first time we were pushed to more emotions that challenged us we got better and that’s encouraging.”
It’s more than encouraging. Consider this: save for two uncharacteristic meltdowns in the first two games, the Celtics have dominated this series. According to radio play-by-play man Sean Grande, Boston has been ahead against Miami nearly 75% of the total 144 minutes.
All the scematic talk going into Saturday night was about how the Celtics would beat the Heat’s vaunted 2-3 zone or cool off the hot shooting of Duncan Robinson and slow down Miami’s All-Star big man Bam Adebayo. There were new wrinkles in Boston’s approach--including the much anticipated return of Gordon Hayward--but in the end, it was the team’s return to just being who they’ve been all year.
“It just took a bunch of good people committed to each other. There’s no special talk, no special things, no rah-rah speeches. It’s who you have in the locker room and are they committed to each other,” Steven said after his team never relinquished a lead that was as high as points. “Everybody gets pushed to emotions in sports. That’s why I was curious to see what would happen tonight, but I didn’t have much doubt. I think this group has some good character.”
After a much publicized confrontation between Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown rocked the locker room after Game 2, there was some doubt how the Celtics would respond. Two nights later, Boston responded with arguably their most aggressive game in Orlando and dominated in all hustle categories. They outscored Miami in the paint 60 to 36, limited their turnovers after coughing up 20 on Thursday, and held the Heat to 27.3% from behind the arc and their worst shooting performance in the playoffs.
Jaylen Brown finished with 26 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and three steals and lead a balance attack that included three other 20-plus point performances from Jayson Tatum (25), Kemba Walker (21), and Marcus Smart (20). He was relentless with the ball in his hands, attacking the rim at every opportunity and hounding the Heat on defense, including a couple dust ups with former teammate Jae Crowder.
“Very important to control the paint and just had to get back to what I do best. That’s what I came into the league doing, you know. Different matchups, different situations call for me to be able to have to be versatile and play different roles on this team,” Brown said of his 11-of-17 shooting night. “But what I do best is get to the basket, so I wanted to come out and just be the best version of myself.”
The Celtics will have four days to prepare for Game 4 on Wednesday. That’s plenty of time for Hayward to get more acclimated. That’s more time for Stevens to take his walks around the hotel circle and think of more wrinkles to the X’s and O’s against Miami’s zone defense. However, the layoff won’t serve as an extended sabbatical for the team to find themselves. Boston is back.
“Yeah, we could have come here and laid down. We could have played like we were fighting for our lives,” Tatum said. “It wasn’t perfect. It’s never going to be perfect. But just playing connected, playing together with a purpose, like we did tonight, it gives ourselves a chance.”
Walker echoed those sentiments. “We have great team chemistry. We have great team competitiveness and we push each other to be the best that we can. We pushed each other tonight to make necessary plays, to make the hard plays and we were able to come out with a victory.”