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Homecourt lost: 10 Takeaways from Celtics-Heat Game 1

Boston once again has dropped homecourt advantage with a Game 1 loss

NBA: Playoffs-Miami Heat at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

1. Joe Mazzulla chose to stick with Robert Williams in the Boston Celtics starting five for Game 1. That’s not surprising, as it worked well to help close out the Philadelphia 76ers. But that also doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for this series against the Miami Heat.

Williams played well on the offensive end. He was instrumental in keeping Boston afloat early with his activity on the offensive glass. The Celtics were struggling to make shots and Williams got them several points with his energy and hustle.

On defense, things didn’t go quite as well. Jimmy Butler did a good job attacking Williams on switches early on. Butler picked up a few easy baskets and drew a couple of fouls.

Williams similarly struggled to guard Bam Adebayo. The Heat did a good job getting Williams turned around in pick-and-roll and on straight drives to the paint, before dropping it to Adebayo for easy shots in the paint.

The other problem starting Williams presented was on offense. With Timelord opening games, it gives Kevin Love an out. Two of them, actually. Love was able to guard either Williams or Al Horford, and neither of them present all that much of a challenge for the aging big man. Horford is still very good, but he’s mostly a spot-up shooter, not unlike Love himself. Williams is about a million times more athletic than Love is, but he’s only a threat from about five feet and in.

The handful of times Boston brought Love into screen actions and drew a switch, Miami had Adebayo ready to help. Or they had a guard or wing ready to pinch in.

Williams clearly has a role to play for the Celtics. It’s just not clear if that’s starting or playing in lineups alongside Horford.

2. Boston got way too cute defending Jimmy Butler. They spent a lot of the first half trying to out-Heat the Heat by pre-switching with Al Horford starting possessions guarding Butler. That sounds good, because if Miami runs a pick-and-roll, it can bring in Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum or Marcus Smart, and the Celtics will just switch.

However, Butler is way too smart for that. It took him exactly one play to figure out what was happening. Butler then either switched to running screen actions with Bam Adebayo, which brought Rob Williams on a switch. Or Butler directly attacked Horford without any assistance.

In the second half, Boston went to a more traditional approach with Brown as the primary defender. That worked a bit better, but the Celtics were still too switch-heavy (more on that in a minute).

The other matchup that Joe Mazzulla went to, which might have been another look at pre-switching was Malcolm Brogdon guarding Butler to open possessions. That worked worse than putting the extra size on Miami’s best player.

Guarding Butler is no easy task. We called it out in the series preview. But the Celtics can’t get cute and can’t overthink things. Put your best on-ball defenders on him, fight through or go under screens and live with the results.

3. Related to the above: this is not the series for the “switch everything” defense in on-ball actions. On off-ball stuff, it’s fine and it’s probably the way to go. Miami runs way too many off-ball screens to expect to always fight through them. Switching them keeps everyone in place to contest.

On-ball screens are a different story. Jimmy Butler is an apex predator hunting the weakest of the herd. By giving up easy switches, he gets exactly what he wants. He harries the weakest defender away from the protection of the herd and ruthlessly eviscerates them in isolation.

Boston has to mix up looks against Butler. When the Heat have a non-shooter on the floor (generally Bam Adebayo or Cody Zeller), they can trap him more. Or go under the screens. But to do that, the pickup points need to be higher. Force Miami to run pick-and-roll above the arc as much as possible. You can’t let Butler dribble into a series of midrange pullups. Off-the-dribble threes? Those are fine.

Butler is basically the wing version of Joel Embiid in this series. You have to show him a lot of different looks, or he’ll figure you out and pick you apart. He’s going to get his, but the key is to make him work and have to think on every trip.

4. Miami shot 54.1% from the field and 51.6% on three-pointers (16-of-31). That’s not sustainable. We’ll even go as far to say that the Heat won’t hit those numbers again in this series.

That said, Miami isn’t a bad-shooting team They’ve had their struggles this season, but they can make shots. Even more importantly, they make sure those shots are going to the guys who can make them.

Boston has to be better in all facets of defense. We called out some of them already, but off-ball and transition defense were both particularly poor in Game 1. The Celtics weren’t getting back and getting matched up when the Heat pushed the ball. When they did, they weren’t staying tight enough to the Heat shooters.

Average shooters, and even some bad ones, tend to make open shots. To that point, the Heat were 16-of-25 on three-point shots classified as open or wide-open in Game 1.

One: that’s way too many open and wide-open three-point attempts.

Two: Miami was 0-for-6 against tight coverage, and didn’t even attempt a single three against very-tight coverage.

That’s stuff the Celtics can clean up with better communication and execution, and with better closeouts. Boston was very reckless with flying at shooters without a plan. Time and time again, the Heat let them fly by and simply buried the shot after a slight fake.

5. Let’s get into rotation stuff…

Payton Pritchard? Why?

This isn’t a knock on Payton Pritchard. Regular readers of this space know we’re a fan of us. But he’s barely played in the last month and now he’s a rotation guy? Against a team with one of the league’s best mismatch hunters?

That one needs some explaining, but we all know the answer will just be “Matchups”.

6. Related to the above…

The rotation had to expand. Boston can’t get by with playing just seven guys as they did in the last couple of games against the Sixers. So going to an additional player or two makes sense.

That said…why not Grant Williams?

Williams has had a lot of success against Bam Adebayo dating back to their high school years. Williams had a good season, and he can provide some floor spacing to pull a Miami big away from the paint.

For whatever reason, Joe Mazzulla has all but confined Williams to the deep recesses of the Boston bench. It’s not really clear why this has happened, as Williams was a regular rotation player, outside of one midseason slump. But the Celtics could use him in this series and beyond, especially if they want Al Horford and Rob Williams to have anything left in the tank to get eight more wins.

7. Let’s talk about the third quarter. But to do that, let’s start with the first half.

The Celtics scored 66 points in the first half. 40 of those points came in the paint and 11 came on free throws, mostly drawn in and around the paint. That’s 51 of 66 points in the “easiest” way possible.

But that’s not who the Celtics are.

Boston’s shot mix was a mess. The Celtics are a drive-and-kick team. They can take layups and short shots in the paint, but they need to get up three-pointers. In the first half, Boston took 33 two-point shots (with several fouls drawn) and just 13 three-pointers.

In a lot of ways, this was a mirror image of Game 1 against the 76ers. The Celtics got a lot of layups early and then overdid it big time by forcing drives the rest of the way.

For the game as a whole, Boston took 52 two-pointers (and again, several fouls drawn on shots in/around the paint) and 29 three-pointers. That’s simply not the shot mix the Celtics win with.

Back to the third quarter…

Perhaps believing scoring would be easy the whole way, the Celtics really struggled when the Heat started shutting off the paint. They got deep into the shot clock, because they kept trying to force the ball inside. That led to four turnovers in the period, after just five in the whole first half. And Boston took a lot of rushed shots.

The offensive problems allowed Miami to get out and running on offense. The Heat shot 17-of-26 in the third quarter, including 6-of-9 from downtown. Miami even rebounded four of their nine misses.

In the end, it was a 46-point quarter for the Heat. After scoring 57 points in the entire first half.

Not playing offense the right way led Boston to having to play matchup defense in transition for almost an entire period. And that’s where the game was lost.

8. You might be aware that Joe Mazzulla has an aversion to calling timeouts. Oh, everyone is aware of that? Got it!

Boston went up 71-59 with 10:55 to go in the third quarter. Over the next three minutes, the Celtics scored one point, while Miami scored 13 to tie the game.

There was no timeout from Mazzulla during that run. He’s made it clear that he doesn’t believe that timeouts actually stop runs and that he wants his team to play through them and to figure it out on the fly.

At 6:28 of the quarter, with Butler having tied the game on an and-1 tip-in, Boston finally “took” a timeout. But that was the automatic under-seven-minutes timeout.

Here’s the thing: nothing got better.

Butler hit the ensuing free throw and Miami went on to outscore Boston 24-13 over the final six minutes or so of the quarter.

The Celtics were a mess before the automatic timeout, but they were just as bad after it. So, maybe, just maybe, timeouts aren’t this magical fix.

Yes, we’d like to see Mazzulla use timeouts more often in the flow of the game, especially since he seems to have a similar aversion to calling them during crunch time too. But this was about a lack of execution, not quelling a hot streak.

9. Let’s talk about another kind of TO that Boston could really do without: clutch turnovers.

Boston cut Miami’s lead to five points with under five minutes to play. That’s the NBA’s definition of a clutch game.

After a Heat timeout with 4:47 to play, the Celtics offense fell apart. Here’s what they did possession-by-possession:

· Jaylen Brown missed a pullup contested three-pointer (after the broadcast talked about his shooting hand gushing blood during the timeout)

· Al Horford missed a three-pointer, rebounded his own miss and turned the ball over

· Jayson Tatum turned it over

· Malcolm Brogdon hit 1-of-2 free throws (Boston missed seven free throws total in a seven-point loss)

· Tatum turned it over

· Brogdon missed a layup on a crazy attempt, Horford rebounded that miss and Tatum turned it over

· Marcus Smart made a layup

· Tatum made two free throws after Smart stole the ball

· Brown missed a three-pointer

· Brogdon banked in a floater

· Brown missed a three-pointer

To sum all of that up: 2-for-7 shooting with 4 turnovers on 11 possessions. The Heat weren’t that much better, as they got two back-breaking late-clock threes from Jimmy Butler and Caleb Martin and not much else.

The Celtics had given themselves a chance by finally getting stops (or Miami’s legs ran out), but they crapped it away with some dreadful offensive execution late during crunch time.

10. If this feels familiar, it should. The Celtics and Heat both have a way of doing things, these playoffs and historically.

Last year in the Eastern Conference Finals, Game 1 played out very similarly. Boston had a halftime lead, fell apart in the third quarter, made it close and Jimmy Butler took it home.

Boston has struggled to win home playoff games for years now, so that is also a uncomfortable familiarity.

Miami has now won Game 1 on the road in all three playoff series they’ve played this year.

And we already drew some parallels to Game 1 of the last round against the 76ers for the Celtics.

Now, here’s another set of truths:

Boston bounced back in last year’s Eastern Conference to blow out Miami in Game 2.

Last round, the Celtics came back from a Game 1 loss to destroy the 76ers in Game 2.

It’s an extremely uncomfortable way of playing, but Boston seems to be at their best when they make things difficult on themselves. That luck eventually ran out against the Golden State Warriors in the 2022 NBA Finals. But it’s worked quite often in other matchups.

Game 2 is on Friday night and it’s basically yet another must-win for the Celtics, before the series shifts to Miami.

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