NBA playoffs: Celtics fold Game 2 under mounting Heat pressure, and ‘it’s definitely mental’
BOSTON — A procession of Celtics staffers approached Jayson Tatum at his locker after they lost a second straight game to open the Eastern Conference finals against the eighth-seeded Miami Heat.
“We have to win both games in Miami. That’s the job.”
“Crazier stories have been written.”
Tatum sat with the task of having to win four of five games in the series long after his teammates filed out of Friday’s 111-105 loss to the Heat, finally emerging from the locker room 80 minutes from the final buzzer.
“It’s a challenge,” said Tatum, who ran his fourth-quarter shooting numbers to 0-for-3 from the field through two games. “There’s no point in being up here sad and s***, right? They came in and won two games. They played well. You give them credit, but we’re not dead or anything. We have a great opportunity. I still have the utmost confidence. Everybody has the utmost confidence, and we just have to get ready for Game 3.”
The ball tips next in Miami on Sunday (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
There is plenty of blame to go around for Friday’s defeat: The stubbornness of first-year Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla, who is on his heels against veteran Heat counterpart Erik Spoelstra and publicly insists his every move is the correct one, in-game adjustments be damned; his players’ failure to value every possession a year removed from that same flaw costing them a championship; Grant Williams challenging Jimmy Butler, of all people, when the Heat’s hard-a** superstar needs no further reasons to tear an entire city’s heart out.
But one factor for blowing another double-digit lead rises above all others.
“It’s a series of discipline and mindset,” said Mazzulla, “so it’s mental from a standpoint of who can make the right plays at the right times, who can make the simple plays, who can win those details and margins.
“So, yeah, it’s definitely mental.”
At some point, you are who you are, and the Celtics have repeatedly given away playoff games in the clutch, dating back to last year’s conference finals against the Heat. Miami has as much confidence in its ability to execute down the stretch of close games as it does in Boston’s penchant for late-game lapses.
Mazzulla has stuck with what the game plan tells him, not what the game is telling him. The latest example was Al Horford in lieu of Robert Williams III for the game’s final 7:41, when the 36-year-old was pushing his shooting slump to 5-for-29 from 3-point range (17.2%) over his last six games and avoiding attempts that might have made it worse. He was shook, and Williams was the more active and effective player all night.
Did the Celtics consider riding him instead? “No,” said Mazzulla. “Al’s finished every game he’s played.”
When it came down to it, with a minute left and the Heat leading by three, Boston’s 89-77 lead long since erased, Bam Adebayo manhandled Horford for an offensive rebound and uncontested dunk that pushed Miami’s advantage to two possessions for the first time since the opening minutes of the third quarter.
Meanwhile, Spoelstra confounded Jaylen Brown (16 points on 7-for-23 shooting) with an array of looks the Celtics were unprepared for, including a zone defense they have seen from the Heat countless times before.
“We just haven’t figured it out in terms of how to exploit it every single time down the floor,” said Brown, who is now 2-for-13 from distance in the series. “We’ve got to recognize certain situations. Credit to them.”
Two nights after Tatum and Brown combined for five fourth-quarter turnovers, they committed another three in Friday’s final frame and nearly gifted the Heat several more. Clinging to a 98-94 advantage inside of five minutes to play, Brown traveled. Tied 100-100, Marcus Smart just dropped the ball. Tatum charged out of control into Butler several plays later, and the Heat converted on all three miscues by Boston’s best players.
Miami has scored 70 points off 18 offensive rebounds and 30 Celtics turnovers in two games. Seventy.
“We need to get together, man,” said Rob Williams, who scored seven of his 13 points in the fourth quarter but grabbed only three rebounds in 23 minutes. “Time’s running out. We ain’t got time for these mess-ups.”
Then came Grant Williams, who took Payton Pritchard’s minutes in Game 2 — a late adjustment most everyone was calling for in the second half of Game 1. He played well, up until he provoked Butler after his lone 3-pointer of the night gave the Celtics a 98-87 lead with 6:37 to go. Butler responded by backing Williams into the paint, scoring over him from seven feet and drawing a foul. Before Butler made his free throw, he went forehead-to-forehead with Williams, and the mismatched pair earned double technicals.