MIAMI — The Heat tortured the Celtics by forcing them to look in the mirror on Tuesday, switching disruptively, causing turnovers and sprinting out in transition on a 39-14 run in the third quarter to flip a night that otherwise went in Boston’s favor into a Game 1 setback.
The Miami zone, which Ime Udoka and the Celtics watched film of in the short window between series, didn’t factor prominently into the Heat’s Game 1 win. Erik Spoelstra needed to decide whether to lean into what worked well, or keep Boston off-balance.
“It depends,” Spoelstra told Celtics Blog on Thursday before Game 2. “That team two years ago was totally different, so you can’t even compare. It depends on what’s called for in the game. The intensity, urgency and attention to detail was very good in the second half, it wasn’t in the first half. It was a tale of two halves.”
Thursday’s 127-102 Celtics win in Game 2 became a tale of two halves of the first quarter, both teams building double-digit leads in the frantic opening minutes before Boston set out on a 62-27 explosion to lead by as many as 29 points before halftime. The Heat had switched to a zone with an early 18-10 lead after disrupting Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in their traditional looks early, giving the Celtics outlets to open shooters on the perimeter.
Brown — who dribbled himself into trouble three times early and threw the ball away — took a decisive three and found Payton Pritchard for a drive-and-kick on another after Tatum checked back in with his second foul midway through the frame. With help from Payton Pritchard and Grant Williams, the Celtics buried six straight triples to close the first quarter and sprinted ahead with rhythm in hand.
Boston entered the second quarter on a 27-6 run, Tatum zipping a pass to Williams on the back line for a cutting two before Brown and Al Horford found Williams on the weak side for back-to-back threes. Udoka entered the series noting that the Celtics had struggled against zone early in the year before improving and seeing teams quickly abandon it when they tried it against the more pass-happy Celtics. Smart and Horford’s return from foot injury and COVID protocol, respectively, gave Boston additional outlets for facilitation.
So Tatum got off the ball to start the second, catching a burying a three from Brown after blaming himself for the Game 1 loss with how he led Boston’s offense. He slipped to the basket in his two-man game with Smart and followed with a driving layup of his own. Tatum finished the first half with 20 points, while the Celtics forced the Heat to fall to a 3-for-12 swoon with five turnovers between the first and second quarters. After runout scores by Tatum and Williams, and a Pritchard three, Boston led by 19 on a 37-10 run.
Williams III checked back in with a put-back following Smart’s missed mid-range jumper, falling on his behind as he pumped his fist. Boston’s starters initially struggled after only playing three games and 28 minutes together this postseason, getting outscored by five points per 100 possession after a league-best +24 regular season across over 400 minutes together. Horford dropped too low and Williams III played too far off P.J. Tucker, who scored five straight points as the Heat controlled the early minutes.
Udoka quickly switched to Grant, who alongside Horford rekindled their defensive energy from the second round against Milwaukee. Horford trapped Herro and forced a travel near half court before Grant caught Horford’s outlet pass and posted Tucker ahead of the rest of the defense to build a 29-point lead just before halftime.
Butler led various small rallies into the second half, his biggest a 10-2 push to within 17 points midway through the third quarter. He attacked the rim aggressively while the Celtics launched jumpers, but the Heat lost the ball early and late in the quarter trying to draw Horford into actions. Smart paced Boston’s lead with a three and pull-up two, dropping Max Strus to the floor with a crossover.
Miami, stuck behind by 22 points late in the third quarter, checked Duncan Robinson into the game hoping to chase the Celtics’ shooting, but found nothing. Tinkering, in part, lost the Heat homecourt advantage, but an exhilarating five-day run where Boston won Game 7, lost Smart and Horford, then returned them to their lineup put the Celtics back in position to dream of a championship. Now seven wins away.
The Celtics return to TD Garden and host the Heat in Game 3, tipping off once again closer to 8:45 EST on Saturday night.