1. In a game where they should have come out firing and full of energy, the Boston Celtics started flat. Everyone looked a step slow. It never really showed up in the early stages of the game, as Miami was off the mark shooting-wise. Eventually, the lackadaisical approach cost Boston. Normally, you could write it off “It’s just one game. Everyone has them.” But now the Celtics are down 3-1 in the series. Recent Denver Nuggets history aside, this isn’t a place where teams have historically found a lot of success.
2. While the Heat’s zone defense confounded Boston for the first game-and-a-half of the series, the Celtics largely figured it out by late in Game 2. Now, you can say that is far too long, and there really isn’t a counter to that. But, since the second half of Game 2, the zone hasn’t really been a problem for Boston.
The Celtics are repeatedly finding good looks when the Heat go zone. That wasn’t the issue. What was? Unforced turnovers. Boston had 19 turnovers for the game. They had 11 in the first half, including two on ATOs. After a clean third quarter, the Celtics coughed it up seven times in the fourth quarter.
After taking an 85-84 lead, Boston proceeded to give the ball away on three of their next four possessions. This turnover from Daniel Theis isn’t because of the zone. It’s just a terrible pass:
It’s unclear if Marcus Smart thought he could dribble directly through Jimmy Butler here or not:
To complete the sequence, Smart could have just handed this ball directly to Bam Adebayo:
Those are just three examples of the sort of messy things the Celtics did all night. It wasn’t necessarily good defense from the Heat. It was careless, sloppy basketball from Boston.
3. Immediately following that last turnover above, the Heat got a layup and Brad Stevens called timeout. With the Celtics trailing 91-85, Stevens turned to the “Best Five” lineup. This initial stint for the grouping lasted just a minute, as Kemba Walker needed a brief rest. For that minute, it was even at four points apiece.
Then, with 3:47 to play, and Miami leading 98-93, Stevens went back to the Best Five to essentially close the game (Marcus Smart fouled out with six seconds to play). The results won’t show much, as Boston actually took a few points off the Heat’s lead. But marrying the eye-test with the play-by-play and stats, it wasn’t very good for the Celtics. As Stevens put it “We looked awfully small with that group.”
4. Looking “awfully small” was a problem all night for Boston. The Celtics initial defense on many plays was very good. All too often, however, they didn’t finish possessions with the rebound. Miami had 10 offensive boards for the night, including this sequence where they grabbed three on one trip:
The Heat didn’t score on that possession, but they had the ball for 33 seconds. It’s extremely deflating for the defense to not be able to head the other way after that long.
It happened again in the fourth quarter, when Andre Iguodala and Bam Adebayo both snagged offensive rebounds. Again, Miami didn’t score on the possession. But in game where the defense was having to make crucial stops, to do it three and four times on the same trip is draining.
5. Related to the above was Marcus Smart getting fouled in the rebounding action by Bam Adebayo with 5:01 to play in the fourth quarter. That foul put Smart at the line, as Boston was in the bonus for the rest of the game.
5:01 of free throws in a tight game should be a good thing. The Celtics would shoot a total of five free throws to close out Game 4. The two Smart got and then three when Jimmy Butler fouled Kemba Walker shooting a three-pointer with nine seconds to play.
That’s not good enough. Not even close. With players like Walker, Jayson Tatum, and to a lesser extent Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward, Boston should be able to force the issue to get themselves to the line. They seemingly never take advantage of being in the bonus, and certainly didn’t when they needed to in Game 4.
6. Maybe it was Brad Stevens searching for a lift after his team started the game flat. Maybe it was to counter Erik Spoelstra going small off his bench with Andre Iguodala essentially backing up Bam Adebayo. Maybe it was…well…who knows? The Celtics rotation in the first half was weird.
Enes Kanter, who had played well in the first half of Games 2 and 3 both, didn’t play. Robert Williams did, and he was pretty good. But with Iguodala on the floor, that gives Kanter someone to guard. It was odd that Stevens went away from it, when it had worked well.
Even odder was Semi Ojeleye seeing time. He played just four minutes, and was -2 during that time, but that felt like throwaway time.
Oddest of all was Grant Williams only playing 46 seconds. He had played well previously in the series. He’s quick enough to switch against small Miami lineups. His absence from the game was a mystery.
And that’s just rotation stuff. The Celtics never did much to slow Tyler Herro down. There were some odd traps late in the game, but that’s unclear if it came from Stevens or the players making in the moment decisions. Not attacking the basket in the bonus is a season and years-long issue.
No matter what, it hasn’t been Brad Stevens’ best series.
7. Also weird was Jayson Tatum’s game. He looked completely unengaged throughout the first half, as he was held scoreless. Tatum came to life offensively in the second half, as he scored 28 points. The challenge was that he still looked sloppy with the ball at times, and he was never really with it defensively, especially on the glass.
Jayson Tatum is Boston’s best player. His second half scoring output showed exactly what he can do. After the game, Tatum said “I didn’t score in the first half. That’s unacceptable.” Unacceptable indeed, especially in a must-win spot.
8. Part of Tatum’s off night were weird fouls. This one is especially silly. The Celtics were making a run and had cut a 12-point Heat lead to just three. When Bam Adebayo screened Tatum, Tatum wraps him arms around Adebayo for an easy foul. There was no need to do this:
Following the mandatory timeout, Adebayo made 1-of-2 free throws to help right the ship for the Heat to close the quarter.
9. Trailing 95-90 with 4:38 to play, the Celtics got a key stop. In transition, this is the shot they got seven seconds later:
It’s not that Marcus Smart took a bad shot, as much as time and situation matter. Smart was 2-of-10 in the game and 1-of-7 from behind the arc at this point in the game. An early-clock, pullup three-pointer in transition isn’t the shot the Celtics needed.
10. Now, Boston’s season is on the brink. Everyone from the Celtics said all the right things following Game 4. There was a lot of “We know we can play better; we just need to do it” and “Every game is a must win now” talk. Brad Stevens talked about how Boston can’t win three games on Friday, and that they need to focus on just winning Game 5.
As a kid, heck even as an adult, it always feels worse when your parents are disappointed in you, as opposed to being angry. Anger is often easily overcome. You say your piece and you move on. Disappointment lingers. It’s kind of always there. It comes back to you when you least expect it.
The Celtics have proven time and time again in this series that they are better that the Heat. Miami has simply executed better and played just that much harder.
It’s that lack of execution and the baffling lack of effort at times that are disappointing for the Celtics in a must-win situation. And that disappointment feels far worse than any anger does.
Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals is Friday, September 25 at 8:30 PM ET on ESPN.