The Celtics, all during this playoff run, have counted on bouncing back when their backs are against the wall. It’s become a part of their DNA. But go to that well too often, you eventually run out. Robert Williams warned before Game 2 that the Celtics couldn’t continue relying on always responding when they have to.
He was right.
What’s that saying? When you mess around, you find out.
The Celtics led by double digits in the fourth quarter of Game 2 but couldn’t close the deal this time. Their worst nightmares came true as a spirited Jimmy Butler led the relentless Heat down the stretch. The Celtics didn’t have an answer in crunch time. They lost, 111-105. And now they head back to Miami in a bad spot, a daunting challenge they haven’t faced yet, in a 2-0 series hole in these Eastern Conference Finals.
“We got to win one at a time,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said when asked of his message to his team after this brutal loss.
Added Robert Williams: “Time is running out. We ain’t got time for these mess-ups.”
Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 34 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists, but did most of his work in the first three quarters as Boston built a double-digit lead, only to see it slip away in crunch time.
The Celtics didn’t make a field goal over the final 3:52 of regulation, with costly turnovers and offensive fouls to blame. And Butler – sparked by a heated run-in with Grant Williams – scored nine of his 27 points down the stretch as he willed the Heat to another win in a hostile environment, now two away from an unlikely trip to the NBA Finals.
What went so wrong in crunch time for the Celtics, a troubling theme that keeps following them?
“I thought we got good looks, just didn’t think we made them,” Mazzulla said.
“They did a good job of protecting the paint. And some of the turnovers were unfortunate. Just lost the ball at half court.
“But when we did get a shot off, we got a good one and we just have to execute better. We have to find the open man.”
The Celtics put themselves in a position to win again. They flipped the script in the third. Tatum took over and Boston led by 12 in the opening minutes of the fourth. They looked destined to even this series.
But then their offense started sputtering, and the Heat chipped away. Duncan Robinson got free for a pair of 3-pointers to close the deficit to four. The Celtics responded, though. Grant Williams drilled a 3-pointer to restore Boston’s lead to nine. But then he did something risky.
He poked the bear.
After hitting that 3, Williams – who gave the Celtics a big spark in his first minutes of the series – started talking with Butler down the floor. The Heat star, however, thrives in pressure-packed playoff moments, and especially when he’s egged on. On that possession, he got the ball with Williams on him and scored a three-point play over him. The two then went toe to toe, face to face, jawing at each other.
“I think he said something and I just responded,” Williams said. “I’m a competitor and I’m gonna battle.”
Butler said the encounter fueled him.
“It did. But that’s just competition at its finest,” Butler said. “He hit a big shot. Started talking to me. I like that. I’m all for that. It makes me key in a lot more. It pushes that will that I have to win a lot more.”
The momentum started to swing in Miami’s favor. The Celtics let it happen. Like they did in Game 1, they allowed the Heat to push them around, to beat them with effort plays. Robinson beat Jaylen Brown back-door for a layup. And after Williams’ dunk gave the Celtics a 100-96 lead, the Heat scored nine unanswered points.
Butler tied the game with a pull-up jumper in the lane over Williams. Then, after Marcus Smart just dropped the ball for a turnover, Butler hunted Williams on a switch and drilled a fadeaway jumper over him for a 102-100 lead.
After a few more empty Celtics possessions – including Tatum being whistled for an offensive foul with 1:38 left – the death blow came when the Heat grabbed three offensive rebounds in one possession. Bam Adebayo got the last one and threw down a thunderous slam to give the Heat a 105-100 lead with 55 seconds to go. Miami’s big man let out a big scream with his team’s victory nearly clinched.
“I think they outplayed us,” Brown said. “They out-toughed us tonight and they found a way to make plays down the stretch and we didn’t.”
The same old story.
Tatum was fouled shooting a 3-pointer on the next play and made all three free throws to make it 105-103. But on Miami’s next trip, Gabe Vincent drilled a step-back jumper with 35 seconds left. The Heat ultimately sealed it at the free-throw line.
Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if Williams didn’t get in Butler’s face. Either way, the Celtics lost this one under all-too-familiar circumstances.
“No matter if I lit him up or not, he’s going to do that,” Williams said. “For me, it’s a matter of understanding that yeah, sure, you did poke a bear, quote unquote. And how are you going to respond?”
On Friday night, the Celtics didn’t respond in that moment. Now they have to on Sunday night in Miami.
“It’s tough. It’s a challenge,” Tatum said. “I mean, it’s no point in being up here sad and (expletive), right. They came in and won two games. They played well, you give them credit. But we’re not dead or anything. We got a great opportunity. I still have the utmost confidence, everybody has the utmost confidence. We just got to get ready for Game 3.”