It didn’t take Marcus Smart’s postgame outburst to confirm the Boston Celtics are performing nothing like we expected from them but perhaps it’s good to know there’s some aggression somewhere on that team.
The Miami Heat have turned what was thought to be a poised, mature bunch into a group that second-guesses itself on the floor and apparently, challenges itself off it for the world to hear.
Another double-digit lead was blown in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals quicker than you can say “Los Angeles Clippers,” and what’s worse, they looked every bit of tentative for the entire second half as the Heat took a 2-0 lead — with Smart’s frustration boiling over on the way to the locker room.
More turnovers than assists, being outhustled on critical possessions — these are usually what the Celtics have done to opponents the last few years.
Now, at least temporarily, the tables are turned.
“Guys were emotional after a hard game, hard loss,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said plainly, not wanting to feed the beast of rumor and speculation.
Kemba Walker wouldn’t touch it, essentially playing the “I’m not snitching” card, while Jaylen Brown didn’t seem to mind Smart’s emotion in the aftermath, saying “[Smart] plays with passion, he’s full of fire. He has that desire and will. We need him to have that.”
What they need in this series, they can’t borrow from the Heat, who seem to relish in this role as stalking underdog. The Celtics don’t lack toughness, it’s not as if they’re a bunch of preening lottery picks without playoff scars.
“We gotta figure some things out. We’ve had some double-digit leads and let go of the rope,” said Jayson Tatum, who scored 21 points in the 106-101 loss. “Just be prepared to win the next one. Not looking at winning four out of five. Just win the next one.”
With the Milwaukee Bucks out of the way and the Philadelphia 76ers doing what was expected, the runway was supposed to be cleared for the Celtics to get to these NBA Finals. It’s no longer a happy-go-lucky bunch, nor are they a team racked with inner turmoil and roster indecision.
Kevin Durant and old buddy Kyrie Irving will be on the scene whenever next year begins, so breaking through this year feels like their best chance when they feel like the talent matchup is comparable.
They’re young enough and constructed well-enough to where there shouldn’t be panic, but there had better be some urgency in maximizing opportunities now as opposed to the usual “in three years, this group …” mantra we’ve been fed since Tatum and Brown started to scratch their potential.
But through the first two games of this series, they haven’t matched Miami’s ability to make a bad situation livable and workable. Jimmy Butler had a below-average offensive game but when it counted, there he was darting in the passing lanes and getting steals for layups, making due out of doo-doo.
It’s clear the Heat are comfortable feeling uncomfortable, and there’s never a feeling the Celtics can ever get beyond arm’s reach distance — which can be frustrating for a team as talented as the Celtics.
“Spo is preaching to me to impact winning, how are going impact winning,” Butler said. “I did that on the defensive end.”
Butler has been on this end of a 2-0 lead against the Celtics before, in 2017, when his Chicago Bulls were halfway to a No. 1 seed vs. No. 8 seed upset before the Celtics responded to win the next four games. Expecting him to take a step back and breathe a sigh of relief isn’t expected, especially when he’s armed with the same information the rest of the world knows: The East isn’t getting any easier in the future, so applying the grip now could be the most likely opportunity to sneak one in.
And if there’s one thing that can get under the skin of someone like Smart, a tough cookie that prides himself on being exactly what he is and nothing more, it’s the fact that they’re losing this way.
Losing a 125-122 game wouldn’t prompt such a reaction, it feels like. But one where scoring felt like a premium relative to this offensive-minded bubble setting, a rugged contest that should be somewhat up their alley, likely bugs him to no end.
When getting these double-digit leads, you never know where it’s coming from. Walker using his size to disappear in the defenses, Tatum scoring from all points on the floor, Brown taking advantage of the limited opportunities to get on the glass.
But when Miami turns up the pressure — or throws a zone their way, the Celtics can’t even look to the sidelines. Stevens, a fabulous coach, is getting worked by Erik Spoelstra through two games.
Spoelstra used Duncan Robinson’s early 3-point shooting to unlock Bam Adebayo in the third quarter, dominating Boston’s bigs and confusing the Celtics with the matchup zone. Even when the Heat had an early fourth-quarter drought, they dragged the Celtics into the mud with them, keeping it close until their primetime player asserted himself one way or the other.
“We pulled apart, we didn’t play well,” Stevens said. “We’re not beating this team if we’re not connected on both ends of the floor. Right now they’re a better team and we’re gonna have to fight to get back in this series.”
Stevens didn’t believe it was the zone that bothered his team, but their own lack of force in dealing with it. However, one bit of success Toronto had against Boston was a zone, and it caused them huge problems for stretches.
So while Brad the tactician will have some work to do, Brad the psychologist will have to get his team on the couch for some group therapy before Game 3.
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