For the second straight series, the Celtics lost Game 1, falling 118-107 to the Heat on Tuesday in their first game of the Eastern Conference finals.
It’s hard to see Tuesday’s loss as anything more than a missed opportunity. The Celtics were without Marcus Smart (midfoot sprain) and Al Horford (health and safety protocols), but built a big first-half lead that reached 13.
Then, in the second part, disaster. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown couldn’t stop turning the ball over (Tatum finished the third quarter with an amazing six), and the Heat embarrassed the Celtics, going on a 20-2 run that erased the deficit and gave the Celtics the answer of 9. -0 insufficient execution. Jimmy Butler stole pass after pass as Tatum finished with seven turnovers, and Brown couldn’t find a shooting rhythm until the fourth quarter, by which point the game was essentially a lost cause anyway. The Celtics outscored the Heat in the first, second and fourth quarters, but the Heat won the third 39-14, which was completely insurmountable.
“I think we have to come out with a little more sense of urgency in the third,” Tatum said. “And that depends on all of us. That’s a choice we have to make.”
To cap off a disastrous night, the Celtics held the game close enough in the fourth quarter to lock in their best players. As a result, both Tatum and Brown played more than 40 minutes in a game the Celtics would likely never win.
As they showed in the last round, the Celtics are a tough group. If it wasn’t for Tatum’s game-winning layup against the Nets, the Celtics likely would have lost Game 1 in every series thus far. They can take a hit and hit back quickly, which is significant after such an ugly defeat.
Whether or not they can be resilient if Horford and/or Smart remain on the bench remains to be seen.
2. After the first half, it looked like Tatum was going to win the battle of superstars handily against Butler, but Butler was consequential in the second half. He finished with 41 points on 12-of-19 shooting, thanks in part to a 17-of-18 performance at the free throw line. Celtics fans may complain that Butler got calls from superstars, but he forced the issue by getting into the paint, and when he didn’t get calls, he still made shots.
“I like the physicality,” Butler said. “I want to meet people and see who falls first. I want to see who resigns first.”
The Celtics need a new plan if Smart remains out for the foreseeable future. The heat Pritchard targeted hyperefficiently 16 times, and Butler in particular seemed almost offended that the Celtics’ shifting defense considered Pritchard an appropriate matchup for him.
3. Robert Williams left the game clutching his knee in the fourth quarter, but Ime Udoka said he was simply having cramps in his first game on the court. Williams was brilliant in the first half — 12 points, 5-for-5 shooting, two blocks — but the Celtics had trouble finding him consistently in the second. Going forward, the Celtics could have a life-size advantage with Williams in the game if their ball handlers can go downhill.
4. It’s worth remembering that the Celtics needed to revamp their game plan quickly after Horford was ruled out. They were already trying to figure out how to beat the Heat without Smart, but Horford’s absence threw a wrench in the process that proved impossible to overcome.
5. Gabe Vincent, who is averaging 8.3 points per game in the playoffs, scored 17 points and hit three huge 3-pointers against the Celtics. Defending the Heat looks a lot different than defending the Bucks: Bully-ball is physically taxing, but the Celtics must stay locked in against Miami guards.
6. The Celtics could have built a big lead in the first half if it wasn’t for Tyler Herro, who led the Heat on a 15-7 run to tie the game in the first quarter after a fast start by the Celtics. . The Celtics defended Herro well the rest of the way, which is an encouraging sign for Game 2.
7. Aaron Nesmith came off the bench for the first time in the rotational minutes of the playoffs and had a couple of spectacular defensive plays, but had as many blocks (three) as field goal attempts (and missed them all). . The Celtics got some floor space and 3-point shooting from Pritchard, who will likely stay in the rotation when Smart returns, even after the Heat attacked him heavily.
8. Game 2 begins Thursday at 8:30 pm on ESPN.
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