On Monday, the advantage belonged to Boston all along. The Celtics were quicker to drop balls, more active in disrupting passing lanes, and more coordinated in switches, limiting quality looks for Miami. They were more pressing to get back on defense and turn in the paint, not allowing the Heat to push for quick breaks like they did on Saturday. Boston’s defense was so effective that Miami only fired two 3-pointers in the first quarter, limiting its chances of closing the deficit until it was too late. That was exactly the kind of energy Boston was sorely lacking in the first half of Game 3. Miami’s starters combined for 18 points.
What made the game even weirder was that the Celtics didn’t play well offensively. They were just 5 for 27 of 3 when they entered the fourth quarter with 24 points and the game was effectively over. They finished the game shooting 39.7% from the field, a percentage that would result in a loss on most nights, not a blowout victory. They also won despite a poor game from guard Jaylen Brown, who shot 5-for-20 from the field for 12 points.
Miami, a team that likes to brag about its hustle culture, gave up 10 offensive rebounds in the first half. Heat center Bam Adebayo, who eventually scored 31 points in Game 3, became hesitant again, only shooting the ball twice in the first half. He finished with 9 points. In large part, that was due to the presence of Celtics center Robert Williams III, who missed Game 3 with knee pain. Williams, who was named to the All Defensive Second Team last week, has made life difficult in Miami. He had 12 points and 9 rebounds in just 19 minutes.
“We shouldn’t have to get a punch in the mouth to respond,” Williams said of the team’s poor starts in their losses.
Maybe this game was inevitable. The Celtics haven’t lost straight for the entire postseason. In their semi-final game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston responded to the disappointments with three strong performances. No one has been more indicative of the Celtics’ fortunes in the playoffs than their best player, Jayson Tatum – a Jekyll and Hyde superstar.
There are nights when Tatum looks like one of the best players in the league. Those nights often come from Boston losses. Including Monday night’s 31-point performance, Tatum averaged 32.6 points after the Celtics’ playoff losses. He was aggressive in attacking the basket, reaching the line 16 times, more than any other game in this playoff series.
But when Tatum plays poorly, he looks worse than most superstars. His shoulders slump. He is content with hard jumping backs, complaining to the referees and not coming back as aggressively in defense. In Game 3 against the Bucks, Tatum had just 10 points and shot 4 of 19 from the field. Saturday night, Tatum had a similar performance – scoring 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting.