MIAMI — The Boston Celtics had a response in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
In fact, they had many answers. And they slayed the Miami Heat on Thursday, closing the series 1-1. Miami actually led by 10 points early on, but Boston had a remarkable 60-21 streak in the first and second quarters. That put the Celtics in 29th place with just over a minute remaining.
Here are some notes, numbers and movies from the Celtics’ 127-102 victory, with the series now moving to Boston for Games 3 and 4…
1. The more efficient half
After losing 18-8, the Celtics scored 56 points on their next 31 possessions. That’s a rate of 1.81 per possession, which is like shooting better than 90%, basically getting layups and dunks on 31 straight plays. In fact, they were only 5-6 in the restricted area on that stretch, but they were 4-7 on other 2-point shots, 8-8 on the free-throw line, and 10-7.15 on the 3-point range.
Jaylen Brown led the charge in the second half of the first quarter, and the Celtics were successful when they put Dewayne Dedmon in the pick-and-roll. Dedmon rocked those pick-and-rolls and Boston cheered.
First, Brown split the defenders, blowing through Dedmon, calling for help from the weak side, and kicking to Payton Pritchard by 3…
Then Dedmon and Jimmy Butler pinned Brown along the sideline. Brown quickly got off the ball and Marcus Smart got a 3 on pace two passes later…
Two possessions later, Dedmon attacked and arrested again. This time Grant Williams got an open 3 when Victor Oladipo didn’t commit to the rotation…
That’s a good offense. But the floodgates really opened when the Celtics landed some more difficult shots. His ninth 3-point shot (in just 11 attempts) from the first quarter was a deep Brown with Oladipo giving a decent run…
“The pitch,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, “it took us away from what we normally do, and that’s what the pitch can do. If you start the game 9 of 11 of three, it will get you out of your habits quickly.”
In total, the Celtics’ first half – 70 points on 44 possessions (1.59 per) – was the third most efficient this season and the most efficient for any team in those playoffs. And it came against the defense that placed fourth in the regular season and second in the playoffs before Thursday.
2. The shortest rotation
After losing Game 1, both Smart (sprained foot) and Al Horford (Health and Safety Protocols) returned to the Celtics. This does not mean that coach Ime Udoka has extended his rotation. Derrick White missed the game for personal reasons and (except for a defensive possession by Aaron Nesmith late in the third quarter) Udoka played just seven players in the first 42 minutes of Game 2.
Smart was the guy coming back from an injury (a sprained foot) and he played 40:18, seven minutes longer than any other team. And that was with the Celtics leading by no less than 17 points in the last 30:54 of this game. Smart finished with 24 points, nine rebounds, 12 assists (with just one turnover) and three steals. He played a fantastic game and didn’t look injured at all. Maybe he was chasing a triple-double.
But this series does not have two-day breaks. These teams will play alternate days until one of them wins four games, so heavy minutes in a burst could be a factor in the future.
3. Heat descends another man
Miami was without Kyle Lowry, who has now missed four straight games (and eight of the last 10) with a hamstring injury. And on Thursday, they lost another starter, with PJ Tucker leaving midway through the third quarter with a left knee injury.
The Heat’s starting lineup, with Gabe Vincent replacing Lowry, outscored their opponents by 22.3 points per 100 possessions, the best mark among the 10 formations that played at least 75 minutes in the playoffs. But with Boston’s big run mostly coming with Miami’s reserves on the ground, the Heat bench now ranks 14th (in terms of aggregate points differential per 100 possessions) in the playoffs.
If Tucker can’t play on Saturday, that bench will get thinner and the Heat will be without the guy who has mostly defended Jayson Tatum.
“I don’t have an update right now,” Spoelstra said of Tucker’s injury. “If you ask him, he says he’s ready to go. We’ll just have to see tomorrow. I will talk to the coaches.”
4. Choosing the wrong guy?
The Heat’s problems in that first half were mainly in the defensive part of the court. But as the Celtics were turning a six-point deficit into an 11-point lead late in the first quarter, the Heat scored on just one of their last eight possessions of the period.
And it looks like they were picking on the wrong guy. In the fourth quarter of Game 1, the Heat were successful in putting Pritchard into pick-and-roll actions. And six-foot Pritchard was down in the final 4:14 of the first quarter of Game 2. But the Heat kept putting Horford in pick-and-rolls.
They initially had some success. Tucker set a canvas for Tyler Herro, Horford played soft, and Herro drained a jumper and 1 pull-up with Brown fouled from behind.
But on the next possession, Horford switched the canvas and Herro and turned the ball…
In the next possession, Horford was guarding Oladipo. So Heat had him set up a canvas for Vincent. Horford switched again, got in front of Vincent’s drive and forced a hard and contested turn jumper…
Two possessions later, Oladipo had a good view of a 3 pull-up when Horford pulled back on a Butler transfer (Horford’s second possession switch). And on the next possession, the Heat attacked Pritchard, but Butler missed a jumper.
But they went after Horford again for two of their last three possessions of the period, with Herro missing a 3 pull-up on the Celtics big man and Horford getting ahead of a Butler iso drive…
According to Synergy’s game type tracking, Horford defended 52 playoff isolations, 17 more than any other player. And the 0.60 points per possession he conceded is the best mark among 17 players who have defended at least 20 iso possessions.
“He’s still moving like he’s 22,” Smart said of the 35-year-old Horford. “This has been an advantage for us. He’s an athletic guy who can go out and switch to those smaller, faster guards, and that really keeps our defense tight. It’s not really a mismatch that teams can really try to chase after.”
5. Miami’s turn to respond
A 25-point loss counts only one loss. The Heat (2-3 away in the playoffs) have lost their home advantage but have two chances to regain it before returning to Miami for Game 5.
“I don’t like moving on because it has to hurt,” Butler said. “They tried to embarrass us. They shamed us. So I think we have to realize that, use that as fuel, whatever you want to say, but realize that the game can get out of hand when you’re playing against a really good team like them, who can score the ball and stop.
“Overall, we have to be better. We have hard work to do to go out there and win, but if they did it, so can we.”
These two teams lead the league in most games led by 20 points or more. The Celtics are now 33-1 (with 24 straight wins) after leading by at least 20, while the Heat (who led Game 1 by 20) are 33-0. We may have a close game 3 on Saturday in Boston (8:30 ET, ABC).
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John Schuhmann is a senior statistics analyst at NBA.com. You can email him here, find his file here, and follow him on twitter.
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