Throughout the Celtics Game 3 victory, one thing became apparent: balance had been restored to the Force. During the first two games of the conference finals, multiple Boston players had flirted with the dark side, culminating in the well-documented post-game blow-up on Thursday night after another meltdown in Game 2.
But on Saturday night in a must win game with finally a healthy roster, the Celtics displayed their best brand of basketball. Buoyed by the return of Gordon Hayward, Boston’s motion offense was firing on all cylinders, while their weak side defense maintained its composure throughout.
It’s clear now that if Brad Stevens is Boston’s Yoda, Hayward is certainly their Obi-Wan. Marcus Smart is clearly embracing Anakin’s role (flirting with the dark side while holding the keys to balance within the force - or team in this instance.) With their Jedi leader returning to the floor, the young padawans fell in line, evidenced by four Celtics scoring twenty or more points each.
Setting the tone from the opening tip, the Celtics got to work in the paint, operating with an urgency seldom seen in the first two games against the Heat.
Here is the Celtics first shot of the contest, with Miami lining up in their inverted 2-3 zone defense. Jaylen Brown sets a slip screen for Marcus Smart, causing the weak side coverage to collapse. Jayson Tatum swings the ball to Smart, who attacks the relocating Jae Crowder with a stutter step crossover before driving the open lane. Fighting through contact, Smart draws the and-1 while converting a difficult lay-up at the rim.
First play down the floor, against a defense which has given them fits, the Celtics created a scoring opportunity with smart off ball movement followed by attacking space. Over the next six shots, only one came from beyond the three-point line, as the Celtics continued to set the tone offensively.
When facing zone defenses during the bubble, part of Boston’s problem has been settling for isolation plays, so the Celtics choosing to attack off the drive with such conviction was remarkably noticeable. The difference here was the off-ball movement, the selfless plays, and moving to create gaps for others.
Kemba Walker’s cut makes this play. Curling off his baseline cut, Walker catches Bam Adebayo’s attention, who then alerts Duncan Robinson. With Walker now momentarily occupying Robinson’s attention, Brown battles through some weak defense to get open in the lane. A sweet dime from Smart finds Brown in oceans of space, allowing the 23-year-old wing to rise and jam it home.
“We wanted to really attack. If we’re putting it on the floor, we want to get to the rim and make a play for ourselves or others. And on defense, if we’re not pressuring the ball, and waiting to be attacked, we stink.” - Brad Stevens
Defensively, the Celtics showed growth on their weak side coverages, having struggled to contain the Heat on that side of the floor at the start of the series.
Something that was confirmed on the re-watch of Celtics/Heat:— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) September 18, 2020
Bam Adebayo killed Boston in Q3. It's easy to pin that on Daniel Theis & Enes Kanter, but the Celtics weakside help was incredibly bad. Multiple times the big did their job defending the ballhandler, but no help came.
This clip is from Game 2. Adebayo curls towards the hoop for an uncontested alley-oop. The issue here is communication or lack thereof. There’s no one contesting Adebayo’s cut off the weak side. As a result, there’s no one to vocalize that a defensive rotation is required to close the driving lane or deter the lob.
Here’s something from Game 3. In what’s almost a carbon copy of the play from the previous contest, Adebayo and Dragic run a ghost pick-and-roll with a lob pass being the intended outcome. Unlike the previous clip, the Celtics weak-side coverage reads this play exceptionally.
As Adebayo slips the ghost screen, Dragic releases the lob pass. Brown, who is guarding the weak-side corner, recognizes the play and rotates towards Adebayo. Jumping into the ball’s airspace, Brown forces Adebayo to adjust before exploding, causing him to miss the pass and the play ends in a turnover.
Brown’s recognition of the play was exemplary, while his leaping ability forced the Heat to turn the ball over. A young Padawan, close to completing his training.
“Our whole team was aggressive, our whole team played with the right mentality. And most importantly, responded to their good runs and tough shots really well.” Brad Stevens, post-game press conference.
A well-balanced performance on both ends of the floor ensured the Celtics finished the game victorious. With all the outside noise of internal fighting and chemistry issues, the team responded in true Jedi fashion - united.
The series is far from over, and future tests of character undoubtedly lie ahead. Yet, with the team’s Obi-Wan returning while also boasting Walker on the Jedi council, the Celtics are well-positioned to overcome any obstacles. There’s depth in character on this squad and personalities so big they can fill a room. All championship teams have that edge. With the balance now restored, we look ahead to Game 4 on Wednesday, hoping the dark side isn’t whispering in anyone’s ear.
In case you’re wondering, Jayson Tatum is indeed the Celtics own Luke Skywalker.