8:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Celtics -6.5, Over/Under: 207.5
As the scene shifts to Beantown, the top-seeded Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics clash once again to break the deadlock tonight in Game Three of this Eastern Conference Final, from TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. After pouncing on a shorthanded opponent in Game One, the Heat (53-29, 1st in Eastern Conference) appear to have lost much of the good will that they had built up on Tuesday night, and all it took was an embarrassing 127-102 meltdown in Game Two, which turned out to be the fourth-largest home defeat ever suffered in franchise playoff history. So, after taking the series lead two days beforehand, what in the name of Rony Seikaly happened to Miami, you ask? Well, we’ll get into the reinforcements that Boston received in a bit, but in regard to the hosts, their typically vaunted defense failed them MISERABLY. In Game One, (Head Coach) Erik Spoelstra’s troops did a solid job of containing the Celtics throughout the contest, limiting them to 45.6% shooting from the field, including 11-of-34 from beyond the arc (32.4%), while forcing sixteen turnovers, which they managed to parlay into nineteen points. Furthermore, they all but shut them down throughout an insane 39-14 third quarter, in which the hosts unleashed a stunning 22-2 run; the Heat netted 11-of-22 attempts from the field (50.0%) during the period, all the while controlling the game from the charity stripe where they knocked down 14-of-17 free-throws (82.4%). On the other hand, Boston could muster a dismal 2-of-15 shooting in the stanza (13.3%), including 0-of-7 from downtown (0.0%), committing FOUR times as many turnovers as field goals. Unfortunately, Thursday night’s encounter went in a very different direction, as it was clear that Miami had ZERO answers for the visiting side; the Celtics shot 51.2% overall and 20-of-40 from three (50.0%), igniting a 17-0 blitz in the first quarter to take control of the contest, as the home side struggled mightily on 9-of-24 shooting from the field (37.5%). Spoelstra’s charges would trail by as many as THIRTY-FOUR in this one, and by the time it was over found themselves at a considerable disadvantage in a number of categories, including three-pointers (-30), free-throws (-5), assists (-7), steals (-4), turnovers (-5) and points from (-11), along with fast break points (-4). We’ll provide further context on that cavalcade of treys shortly, but the biggest takeaway was literally the takeaways; after committing twelve turnovers in Game One, they gave it away fourteen times in its successor, which turned into TWENTY points for the visitors. Simply put, for a team that oftentimes gets bogged down within the halfcourt, Miami CANNOT afford to give the ball to their opponent, particularly when you consider the predicament that they find themselves in. As he has throughout this postseason, (All-Star Swingman) Jimmy Butler (21.4 PTS, 48.0% FG, 23.3% 3FG, 87.0% FT, 5.9 REB, 5.7 AST, 1.6 STL, 0.5 BLK, 23.6 PER) was effective, totaling twenty-nine points on an efficient 11-of-18 shooting from the floor (61.1%), along with six rebounds, three assists, and a steal, but the supporting cast around were decisively less so. Needless to say, it’s not a good sign when you get nearly thirty points from your top scorer, and yet you still manage to get throttled twenty-five points. At any point in these playoffs when the Heat have struggled offensively, it has been because the rest of the rotation have had a hard time creating for themselves or knocking down open shots, which was the case on Thursday night; outside of Butler, the home side accounted for seventy-three points on 39.7% shooting overall, with three-fifths of the starting lineup, namely Bam Adebayo (19.1 PTS, 55.7% FG, 75.3% FT, 10.1 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.8 BLK, 21.8 PER), Max Strus (10.6 PTS, 44.1% FG, 41.0% 3FG, 79.2% FT, 3.0 REB, 1.4 AST, 12.7 PER), and P.J. Tucker ((7.6 PTS, 48.4% FG, 41.5% 3FG, 73.8% FT, 5.5 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 11.3 PER) combining for just seventeen points on 7-of-19 shooting (36.8%). Granted, the rotation has been shortened due to the absence of (Veteran Guard) Kyle Lowry (13.4 PTS, 44.0% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 85.1% FT, 7.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 15.0 PER), who has missed eight of the last nine games with a nagging hamstring strain. Tucker appeared to join him on the trainer’s table with a bulky knee, while Strus and Gabe Vincent (8.7 PTS, 41.7% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 81.5% FT, 1.9 REB, 3.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 10.6 PER) are dealing with hamstring maladies of their own. What a time it is for things to crumble for the Heat, who spent many of their resources last summer acquiring veteran support such as Lowry and Tucker for matchups just like the one they currently face. Both players possess championship experience, along with perimeter shot making and a dogged mentality on defense, and if they miss significant time moving forward, then it is hard to envision this series lasting beyond five games. Indeed, it’s rather ironic that a team that certainly benefitted from the misfortune of their previous two opponents has now run into an injury crisis of their own. So, where does Spoelstra turn as this affair transitions north, you ask? Well, (newly-minted Sixth Man of the Year) Tyler Herro (20.7 PTS, 44.7% FG, 39.9% 3FG, 86.8% FT, 5.0 REB, 4.0 AST, 0.7 STL, 16.2 PER) must play a greater role moving forward, while a revitalized Victor Oladipo (12.4 PTS, 47.9% FG, 41.7% 3FG, 73.7% FT, 2.9 REB, 3.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 16.8 PER) is going to have to channel the form that made him an All-Star three years ago. The tandem combined for twenty-five points off the bench in Game Two, though the former was shut out from the perimeter (0-of-3 3FG), and much of the latter’s production came from the charity stripe (9-of-10). Despite his prolific production, Butler can’t do it all on his own, particularly against Boston’s defense at full strength, and BOTH of these guys will be counted upon to pick up the slack, for falling down 2-1 with another game to be contested at the Garden does not bode well for Miami.
Meanwhile, after the events of Thursday night’s watershed 127-102 thrashing of the Heat, there is a sense of Deja vu surrounding the Celtics (51-31, 2nd in Eastern Conference), who for the second consecutive series stormed back to tie the affair following a disappointing performance in the opener. After losing Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Bucks (101-89), Boston roared back in Game Two (109-86) thanks in large part to an avalanche of three-pointers, nailing 20-of-43 attempts from beyond the arc (46.5%) for a seismic 51-point advantage. Fast forward to this week’s Eastern Conference Final, and the script has played out in a strikingly similar fashion; (Head Coach) Ime Udoka’s troops fell to Miami in a 118-107 affair on Tuesday night, only to turn right around and bury their opponent under a flood of treys, hitting 20-of-40 from downtown (50.0%) en route to besting the hosts by THIRTY points in that regard. So, what changed for the Celtics, you ask? Well, apart from simply making the shots that were afforded to them by one of the stingiest defenses in the Association, it certainly helped to return to full strength as (veteran Forward) Al Horford (10.2 PTS, 46.7% FG, 33.6% 3FG, 84.2% FT, 7.7 REB, 3.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.3 BLK, 16.7 PER) and (newly-minted Defensive Player of the Year) Marcus Smart (21.1 PTS, 41.8% FG, 33.1% 3FG, 79.3% FT, 3.8 REB, 5.9 AST, 1.7 STL, 13.6 PER) were both activated after missing Game One. Following that bloodbath with Milwaukee, Smart suffered a bruised foot, which kept him from participating after such a quick turnaround, while Horford suddenly became subject of the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols, robbing the club of two starters in a series that demanded their availability. Both players are heady veterans who bring a lot to the table on both ends of the hardwood, though for all intents and purposes it is Smart who is the leader of this team, and his presence was evident quickly in Game Two. Though they fell by behind by as many as ten points early in the first quarter, the visitors would not trail again that night, eviscerating the hosts thanks to a 17-0 explosion that placed the encounter firmly in their favor; the Celtics shot a blistering 12-of-19 in the opening period (63.2%), including an insane 9-of-11 from three (81.8%), led by (All-Star Swingman) Jaylen Brown (23.6 PTS, 47.3% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 75.8% FT, 6.1 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.9 PER), who poured in eleven of his twenty-four points in the quarter, draining each of three triples along the way. Running their lead to as many as THIRTY points, Boston was nothing short of ruthless in this affair swarming and turning over the home side and making them pay dearly for their mistakes; as we stated earlier, the visitors owned an 11-point advantage in points off turnovers, logging twenty on the night. And then there was the battle at the charity stripe, where after watching the Heat calmly sink 30-of-34 free-throws (88.2%) on Tuesday, Udoka would not suffer a sequel. Miami was much more palatable 16-of-22 from the line (72.7%), which was yet another indicator that the game was played at the pace of Boston’s liking, as they sped their opponent up and took them out of their comfort zone. At the end of the contest, six different players scored in double-figures for the Celtics, led by (All-Star Swingmen) Jayson Tatum (26.9 PTS, 45.3% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 85.3% FT, 8.0 REB, 4.4 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.6 BLK, 21.8 PER), who after totaling twenty-nine points on 10-of-21 shooting (47.6%) in Game One, nearly matched that output with twenty-seven points on a much more efficient 9-of-17 shooting (52.9%) in Game Two. However, the difference between the two performances was that ascendant superstar committed seven turnovers in the opener, including SIX during that fateful third quarter, in comparison to giving away the basketball on just three occasions in its successor. (Backup Forward) Grant Williams (7.8 PTS, 47.5% FG, 41.1% 3FG, 90.5% FT, 3.6 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.7 BLK, 11.2 PER), who was the hero of their Game Seven triumph over the reigning champions, made his presence felt with nineteen points off the bench, while (Backup Guard) Payton Pritchard (6.2 PTS, 42.9% FG, 41.2% 3FG, 100.0%, 1.9 REB, 2.0 AST, 15.0 PER) followed up a solid showing on Tuesday (18 PTS, 5 REB, 4 AST), with ten points on 4-of-8 shooting (50.0%), and a pair of rebounds and assists. For those wondering, Horford was steady if unspectacular with ten points on a perfect 4-of-4 shooting (100.0%), three rebounds, and three assists in just over thirty-two minutes of action. With all that said, the most noticeable difference was Smart, who nearly amassed a triple-double with twenty-four points on 8-of-22 shooting (36.4%) and netting 5-of-12 from deep (41.7%), along with nine rebounds and a dozen assists, all the while offering the image of the night as he disrespectfully shook the aforementioned Strus to the floor before burying a midrange jumper. The victory continued a trend of rebounding from defeat for the Celtics, who have yet to lose back-to-back games in these playoffs and have experienced that sensation just once since late January.