Last night’s Boston Celtics-Miami Heat East Finals, Game 1 was frenetic and discombobulated. My bob has been ulated uncomfortably. It was a glorious, competitive mess. Late in the playoffs, Game 1's are usually strange, as the stakes rise and the first game is usually a feeling-out process, especially after 7 against the previous opponent, as was the case with Boston.
The Celtics won the first 5 minutes of the 1st quarter, and the entire 3rd quarter. The Heat won the end of the 1st, the 2nd and the 4th. Overtime was pretty even, with two plays winning it for Miami.
Bam Adebayo’s mind-boggling, inches-above-the-rim block on Jayson Tatum was the defining play, saving the game for Miami with 2 seconds left in OT and the Heat up by 2. It was the type of play that builds a player’s legacy. A Dikembe or Hakeem type of block that was pure timing and reach.
Probably unfairly, as I watched the replay several times, I wondered if Tatum considered laying the ball in, to keep the ball angled further away from Adebayo until the last possible second. But how can you criticize Tatum for wanting to slam the ball home, hoping to bring the game to a second overtime? You can’t. You tip your proverbial cap (unless you’re wearing one) and you focus on taking Game 2.
By the way, if you haven’t read Zach Lowe’s Bam profile from February, I highly recommend it. Lowe invites the reader into Bam’s development and psychology — how his single-minded focus on helping his devoted mother out of poverty in rural North Carolina has been all the motivation he’s ever needed.
The game played out in spasms of activity, with few fouls in the first half.
Hot Start, Cool Finish for Cs.
The first few minutes belong to the Celtics who took an early 12–3 lead behind Jayson Tatum’s shooting and the general ball-movement that found Marcus Smart repeatedly open behind the arc. The Heat, who rely heavily on the deep ball, tried to get Duncan Robinson and Jae Crowder unleashed to modest success, but retaliated with Goran Dragic finding his groove by the end of the first.
The second quarter was all Miami’s offense, with great ball-movement ending in open 3’s and looks at the rim. From 7:21 left to halftime, Miami made 6 3's, all assisted. Celtics defenders looked like they were in quicksand. Miami’s fresh legs and rapid-fire attack probably confused Boston after the older, more methodical Raptors offense. Miami finished the half with 16 assists and 3 turnovers. Goran Dragic sliced through the perimeter and had 16 points, with Adebayo providing 5 assists. Not championship-level defense from Boston.
Celtics center Daniel Theis, whose defensive has been phenomenal throughout the playoffs, finished the game a Celtic best +12 in 35 minutes. Theis sat out for most of the second quarter. Adebayo and Dragic were both +12 for the Heat.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens will need to figure out how to minimize those stretches without Theis going forward. Boston is relying on two rookies: Grant and Robert Williams to prop up the second unit, at least until Hayward returns to limited action (maybe Game 4?).
Boston’s intensity was palpable throughout the 3rd, cutting off passing lanes and making deflections. Brad Wanamaker’s instincts (3 steals in the quarter) led to transition looks. Boston’s shot diet transformed, as they took 13 of their 17 attempts from behind the arc, but complemented that with 11 free-throw attempts. The Celtics were up 12 at the end of 3, but that lead proved unsustainable.
As it often does, good defense leads to easier offense, while hesitant, clunky and individual-focused offense sometimes leads to lackluster defense — -see Clippers, Los Angeles 2nd halves of Games 5, 6, and 7).
Let’s stop for a second and recognize something: in this 3-point-heavy version of the NBA a 12-point lead is a 4-possession game. A decade ago, a 12-point playoff lead was a bigger deal. Today, leads are more volatile. The best coaches emphasize staying in “the moment” because of this volatility.
The Nuggets and Heat are two teams who’ve shown the ability to play at their highest intensity level for longer than other teams. I think it’s in part because of their conditioning. Denver’s players are used to playing at 5,000 feet. They are simply in better shape because of the altitude. Miami’s strength and conditioning program is notorious. The every-other-day grind of these playoffs is real. The lack of travel helps everyone recover faster, but there have been playoff games every other day for a month now.
This isn’t to say the Celtics aren’t also in great shape — their youth certainly helps. Remember the grind of the Raptors series — the double OT Game 6. Consider Kemba Walker’s knee injury kept him from staying at peak condition for most of the hiatus. That half-step makes a difference. It’s harder to connect from deep at the end of an exhausting game than at the beginning.
In the fourth quarter, Miami’s scoring was evenly balanced: 9, 8, 6, 5, 4, and 3 with 35 total points on only 14 field-goal attempts, adding 10 of 12 from the line, with Adebayo going 6 of 8. All ten of Miami’s makes were assisted, and they committed only 2 turnovers. That’s as close to egalitarian perfection as it comes in playoff basketball, which has me worried for the Celtics.
All in all — it wasn’t shocking to see the Heat win Game 1. This is an evenly-matched series.
If Kemba Walker has enough left and can relax, that’d improve things. If they can keep someone glued to Jae Crowder along the arc, that would be nice, as Crowder was 5 of 9 from deep. If Gordon Hayward can give them a lift at some point, that experience and shooting should give a boost. Until then, Stevens needs a tiny bit more from Semi or Theis has to figure out a way to play 40 minutes without getting any 6 fouls (not an easy task).
Game 2 is Thursday night.