“We stopped playing on both ends,” Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols between the third and fourth quarters of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday night, just after watching his team get outworked by the Miami Heat and blow another double-digit second-half lead.
The physical toughness of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic overwhelmed the Celtics in a startling third-quarter turnaround and again down the stretch of the fourth quarter, and the Heat took a 2-0 series lead with a 106-101 victory. Fifth-seeded Miami is now just two wins from reaching the NBA Finals.
“We like to make it hard on ourselves,” Butler told Nichols afterwards, after swiping three game-changing steals with his hustle in the final stanza. “We like being down double digits and being the comeback kids.”
Miami completely flustered Boston with a zone defense in the second half, forcing indecision after indecision and turnover after turnover. As Dragic and Adebayo abused the Celtics in the pick and roll and Duncan Robinson’s hot hand raged, a Boston lead as large as 15 points early in the third quarter disappeared in a matter of minutes. The Celtics committed seven of their 20 turnovers and attempted only 12 shots in the frame, turning a 60-47 halftime lead into an 84-77 deficit entering the fourth quarter.
Boston locked in defensively to open the final quarter, holding the Heat to just five points through the opening 7:57 and reestablishing a 94-89 lead when Kemba Walker followed a Jayson Tatum dunk with a three-pointer. Walker scored a team-high 23 points. Tatum and Jaylen Brown each added 21 points.
But for the second straight game, the Celtics collapsed under Miami’s pressure in the clutch. Butler made an incredible steal, save and scramble for an uncontested layup to close the Heat within 94-93. He tied the game on the next possession, and Dragic followed with five straight points, including a step-back three-pointer with time dwindling on the shot clock to give Miami a 100-95 edge with 1:42 remaining. Butler pushed the lead to seven with another dogged steal and an assist to Jae Crowder for the transition layup.
Butler scored six of his 14 points in the fourth quarter. Six Heat scored in double figures, led by Dragic’s 25 points. Adebayo netted 21 points, all seemingly on dunks, and Robinson made six threes for his 18 points.
Only Brown appeared engaged for the Celtics in the closing minutes. He scored 13 of Boston’s 24 fourth-quarter points, including back-to-back threes to draw within 104-101 with 49 seconds left. He got a third open look, but missed the potential game-tying shot, and there was no more luck left for the Celtics. Afterwards, Marcus Smart was reportedly among a number of Celtics heatedly voicing their frustration in the locker room, a more offensive effort than they had shown in the clutch of both games against Miami.
The Celtics downplayed the emotional response to a second straight blown opportunity. “It was nothing,” Walker told reporters. “We’re not supposed to be happy down 0-2,” added Tatum. “Nothing out of the ordinary.” They are running out of chances to match Miami’s effort, but all hope is not lost in Boston.
Gordon Hayward is essentially day-to-day rehabbing his injured ankle. He missed an 11th straight game on Thursday. His status remains in doubt for what is all but a must-win Game 3 on Saturday, but a three-day break between Games 3 and 4 will give him additional time to get back on the court. Reinforcements could be coming for the Celtics, if only they can build a lead large enough to withstand Miami’s relentlessness.
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