If there’s a spirit animal for the Celtics, it’s Marcus Smart.
He’s just an emotional key for us,” head coach Joe Mazzulla said of Smart’s opening steal that lead to the team’s first points. “When he’s locked in and playing on both sides of the ball at a different pace, it gives us our identity and our life.”
A few minutes later, Smart would hit back-to-back three pointers and Boston would head into the first timeout up ten 15-5 and the team wouldn’t look back. In the opening five minutes, they’d register two 3’s, three layups and dunks, and force four turnovers en route 110-97 big win back in Boston.
“I wanted to get us going early,” Smart said of his tone-setting start. “I wanted to come in and give my team energy early, especially playing a team like Miami.”
For the second straight game, the Celtics looked like the team that closed out the 76ers in Round 2 with a deadly combination of outside shooting and smothering defense in two potential close out games.
In Games 6 & 7, Boston made 30-of-68 from behind the arc and completely shut down James Harden and Joel Embiid with back-to-back, suffocating sub-95 defensive efficient strangleholds. At their best, the team that won the second most games in the regular season and submitted the second most efficient offense and defense in the league bury opposing teams under an avalanche of 3s and keep them under on the strength of their D.
The TNT broadcast and national media has hammered this stat ad nauseam over the last two weeks: the Celtics are 31-1 (6-1 in the playoffs) when they shoot over 40% from behind the arc. It’s not surprising considering Boston averaged the second most three-point attempts, just behind the Golden State Warriors at 42.6 a night.
Through the first three games of the series, they made a dismal 31-of-106 (29.2%). In their two blowout wins in Games 4 and 5 facing elimination, they’ve flipped the script and hit 34-of-84 (40.5%).
And while the shooting has been a large contributor to Boston’s success, so has the return of their defense. Against the Hawks, the Celtics coasted on that side of the ball, allowing Atlanta to score 119+ points four times for 114.3 defensive rating. With Philly, buoyed by those two aforementioned monster defensive performances in Games 6 and 7, they were stingy at 107.9 points per 100 possessions.
Miami has been a different story. Through the first three games, the Heat hit nearly half of their threes and that tidal wave was a large part of their 3-0 lead. Since then, not only has water found its level, but the Celtics have also staved off summer break with the resurgent return of their defense. They’ve turned in back-to-back performances of 107.2 and 108.6 points (minus garbage time in Game 5) per 100 possessions respectively.
For those believing that Boston can make an unprecedented run at being the first team to overcome an 0-3 deficit in the NBA Playoffs, the much-needed return of their dominating defense gives them some wiggle room if their shot isn’t falling in Miami on Saturday night. During the regular season, the Celtics were 11-4 in games where they hit less than 40% from 3 but held teams to a sub-110 offensive rating. Mazzulla has stressed the importance of togetherness and connectivity, and that’s been more evident in their defense over their last two games.
What’s troubling is that two of those regular season losses came at the hands of the Heat. The first was the second game of a mini-series in Boston that the Celtics lost in overtime 120-116. The second was a January tilt in Miami without Jaylen Brown and Al Horford that they lost 98-95. The past can often be prologue, but those losses and even the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals seem so far away now. The Celtics of now are playing at their highest level on both sides of the ball.
Smart joked that Miami “snuck up” on Boston to start the series. For the Celtics, there’s no sneaking up on now. They’re not looking to steal a game in South Beach like a stealthy cat burglar. No, no. With how they’re playing, this is pure bully ball, kick sand in your eye and take what is rightfully theirs.