Payton Pritchard put it plainly at shootaround. Take care of the ball. Set the tone defensively. When the Celtics lost earlier in the series, he continued, it stemmed from turnovers.
It’d been repeated so often it wouldn’t be surprising if Ime Udoka said nothing at halftime after Boston turned the ball over 10 times and gave up nine offensive rebounds to a Heat offense that the Celtics held to 38% and 42 points before halftime. Boston sat with 37.
The Celtics’ defense gave them enough breaks to escape their offensive lulls, turning around a disastrous start into a runaway second half led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown that put them on the brink of the NBA Finals, winning 93-80.
Brown set the tone for sloppiness missing two fadeaway mid-rangers and dribbling into two live ball turnovers that sparked the Heat, already missing their first four shots including an open Jimmy Butler layup. The giveaways allowed P.J. Tucker and Gabe Vincent to break out for easy baskets.
Only Derrick White and Al Horford could calm the Celtics down through a frantic first half, keeping them within striking distance with an early short roll floater from White and connection between the pair on an alley-oop. Aside from an aggressive Bam Adebayo drive, Butler three-point heave and some dribble penetration from Vincent and Victor Oladipo, the Heat only scored following offensive rebounds and breakaways in a 19-17 first quarter win.
Horford pulled the team together early in the second quarter after Smart threw away a pass to Oladipo that Miami turned over the other way. Tatum finally hit a three catching a pass from Horford in the high post, shaking off a 1-for-7 start, but the Celtics nearly turned the ball over again before dumping the loose ball down to Smart in the low post to draw free throws.
White scored six straight points through the middle of the second to keep the Celtics within a basket and Brown buried a three of his won, but Adebayo and Tucker closed the quarter attacking the offensive glass and kept the Heat ahead 42-37 at halftime. Boston felt fortunate to escape to the locker room with more than a chance. Tatum, who missed his last shot around a pair of key shots from Horford, grabbed at his right shoulder before the buzzer.
An ominous start grew scarier when Robert Williams didn’t exit the locker room to start the third. Grant Williams started the third and the Celtics’ defense didn’t falter, piling up four straight stops while Horford, Brown, Tatum and Williams stepped inside the arc to score and put the Celtics ahead immediately. Boston and Miami had only traded leads five teams in the series. Wednesday’s contest featured four alone, including the first since Game 2.
Williams III returned to the bench and the game shortly after, as Miami’s injury woes grew with Max Strus getting shaken up on an early drive and heading to the locker room shortly after. Smart drew his fourth foul on the play, and Udoka wisely kept him in the game given Boston’s need for ball control. Smart avoided a dangerous pass others didn’t shortly after with Adebayo blocking Tatum on the roll, and found Horford on the roll for a pair of free throws after the big man had just taken a stop full court for two points and a foul at the basket.
As Kyle Lowry picked up his fourth foul on a full-court transition take by Tatum and Oladipo missed consecutive three-point tries off the backboard as part of a 5-for-34 Heat start from deep, the Celtics seemed a short run from taking complete control of the game. Instead, Vincent entered with back-to-back mid range jumpers and Horford rushed a corner three try.
Oladipo got to the free throw line with a chance to get within two points and split the pair. Tatum nearly turned the ball over again targeting White in the pocket, but the ball bounced right out to his teammate and Brown hit the follow-up mid range jumper. Tatum spun into a layup to give Boston its largest lead, nine points, before White nealry sprinted back into a steal on Oladipo’s dump-off attempt after rushing up the floor. Adebayo front-rimmed a long floater back dump Williams III, who again gave him fits and blocked a pair of Tucker corner three-point attempts.
The run kept flowing into the fourth, reaching 21-2 and demoralizing the Heat, who never got their offense going against another dominant half court defensive effort from the Celtics. Horford caught and gave back passes from Brown and Tatum to set up threes at the start of the final frame. Tatum hit a turnaround jumper. Adebayo got blocked by Horford on a put-back try this time, Miami the first to turn the ball over on an errant pass by Vincent.
Tatum found Brown for two more triples, first in the right corner, then on a long bomb from the right wing. The Celtics, struggling to simply take a lead for the entire first half, led by 23 points less than four minutes into the fourth quarter. Boston would outscore Miami by 22 points in the second half before both starters exited the game late in the frame.
Brown smashed a dunk through the Heat’s back line to put an exclamation point on a night where he sputtered out of the gate. But Horford and White, the Celtics’ pair of steady veterans, along with Smart and Williams III playing through pain kept Boston’s stars in position to secure one of the biggest wins of the season on the road.
The Celtics return home on Friday night at 8:30 EST, one win from their first NBA Finals appearance since 2010.