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The Heat deserve plenty of credit up 2-0

Celtics vs. Heat is a battle of man vs. machine.

NBA: Playoffs-Miami Heat at Boston Celtics
Jimmy Butler gets physical with Malcolm Brogdon in the second half of Game 2 on Friday.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a classic bowling alley ruse – the young, wide-eyed kid approaches the claw machine with a blend of refreshing optimism and ill-timed naïveté.

Deep down, he truly believes he has a great chance to win that stuffed hedgehog he so desperately needs. He’s studied the machine, he’s played it before and he’s envisioned this moment countless times in his head. Falling just short the other day doesn’t deter him in the slightest. This is his time.

But the claw has other ideas. The claw is crafty, rigid, uncompromising. All it needs is the slightest slip-up from the young boy to clench its unforgiving fist like a Venus fly trap. One moment it seems attainable, and the next, the boy is running away from the machine and sobbing uncontrollably.

The boy may have made some mistakes along the way. There were some teaching moments that will benefit him in the long run. But in a man vs. machine battle like this one, it’s important to not underestimate the machine.

The machine is trained to pounce on human weakness and inhale quarter after quarter. First quarter, second quarter, third quarter, fourth quarter — a dollar disappears like that. It needs those quarters to sustain life. A human may get lucky every once in a while, but the machine is inevitable.

Rehoboth Beach Funland Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images

As the Celtics try to make it back to the NBA Finals, the claw machine (yes, it is Kawhi Leonard-like) that is Jimmy Butler and the Heat simply won’t relent. That cold-bloodedness was there in Game 1, then again in Game 2, where it looked like the Celtics had their chances before Butler and Miami entered assassin mode and stole what the Celtics believed was theirs.

If you come at the machine, you best not miss. Grant Williams tried to Hulk smash it, but the machine stayed sturdy.

“It makes me smile,” Butler said. “It does. When people talk to me, I’m like, ‘OK, I know I’m a decent player,’ if you want to talk to me out of everybody that you can talk to.”

Have the Celtics underachieved and potentially squandered a spectacular opportunity? No doubt. Do they deserve blame for the way these two games have unfolded? Absolutely. But make no mistake: the Heat have won these games more so than the Celtics have lost them. They’re taking mental toughness to a new level in these playoffs.

The Celtics still have an outside chance to win this series, but it’s going to require a more unflappable, disciplined and levelheaded effort. Study how to beat the machine. What makes it tick? Can someone who beat it before offer insight?

Wait a minute. You beat it before. Just last year. You almost forgot. What can you learn from your own success to do it again? Can you become the machine once again yourself?

This feels different, and more daunting, but find it deep down, in your gut, how to beat the machine. Channel that performance into something even greater this time around. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s not supposed to be easy. Half the battle is truly believing that you can do it, and other half is showing some moxie to make it happen. It’s true, this is more a mental war than a physical one.

“It’s a challenge. I mean, it’s no point in being up here sad and [expletive], right?” Jayson Tatum said. “They came in and won two games. They played well, you give them credit. But we’re not dead or anything.”

That’s nice and all, but it’s time to prove it. It’s abundantly clear that Miami’s not going to relent, so the Celtics will have to go out and snatch what they believe is theirs.

The Heat have had an absolutely masterful game plan. Butler is basically Godzilla, Bam Adebayo is the definition of versatility and role players like Caleb Martin, Duncan Robinson and Gabe Vincent have consistently delivered in the clutch. Erik Spoelstra is running laps around Joe Mazzulla.

It’s still comical that ESPN’s model gave Miami a 3-percent chance to win the series. Three-percent! Even if its algorithm loved the Celtics’ style and talent, you’d think it would be closer to 30 or 40 percent.

Don’t let the 8-seed fool you. Don’t let the undrafted players fool you. Don't let the Celtics’ definitive edge in talent fool you. The Heat are an outstanding team, and they’re getting more and more dangerous as these playoffs progress.

If Butler continues at his current clip, and the Heat go on to win it all, this will be talked about as one of the most magical individual and collective runs in NBA history. The man’s just on another level right now.

He legitimately cracked up at the notion that the Celtics thought putting Grant Williams on him could work. Williams wasn’t as amused, but he wasn’t deterred either.

“I respect him as a mother****ing” player,” Williams said.

He better. How could he not?

Butler has always been special, but this is a new level. So, as we continue to watch this series, it’s OK to scream, pull your hair out and tear the Celtics posters off the wall. But make sure to also appreciate the greatness we’re all witnessing.

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