How the Heat got burned in Game 2, featuring Marcus Smart, Al Horford and the rejuvenated Celtics offense

An indescribably ugly performance in the third quarter cost the Boston Celtics Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Two days later, a downright dominating performance tied their streak against the Miami Heat.

When both teams started under in their deep reserves with 6:18 left in the fourth quarter on Thursday, the Celtics led by 32 points. Against one of the best and most physical defenses in the NBA, they had shot 38 for 70 (54.3%) from the field and 19 for 33 (57.6%) from the 3-point line, with 24 assists and just nine turnovers, scoring 143.8 points per 100 possessions on 72.6% true shooting.

In other words, Miami had no answers. With starters Marcus Smart and Al Horford back after a midfoot sprain and a brief stint through NBA health and safety protocols, respectively, the Celtics’ offense was otherworldly in a win of 127-105 in the second match. Smart and Horford brought what coach Ime Udoka called a “calming presence” to a team that desperately needed it.

Boston’s first bucket was an open 3 from Jaylen Brown, created by Smart turning the corner, collapsing the Heat defense and firing a perfect cross pass in the air, just before falling on a photographer:

“He’s a heavy team that flies on shooters, and he did a great job at the wheel, making the open pass and getting easy shots for the guys,” Udoka said.

Smart said the goal was “to be as aggressive as possible,” but to avoid the silly stuff that doomed them in Game 1: “We’re playing against a really, really, really, really good Miami team. , and when you make mistakes, they make you pay for it.” Derrick White missed the game for the birth of his child, so Smart logged 40 minutes, finishing with 24 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds, three steals, one block and, most importantly, just one turnover.

With Smart running the show again, there was less pressure on Jayson Tatum and Brown to make plays on the dribble. On a possession in the second quarter, Tatum screened the ball for Smart, then moved to the 3-point line for a catch-and-shoot 3:

That 3 was there not only because the Heat didn’t want to tip Gabe Vincent onto Tatum, but because Smart was able to maintain control of the ball with PJ Tucker sweeping it, then quickly getting rid of it. Udoka credited Smart for “dictating everything and getting into things”. The Celtics relentlessly attacked weak defenders, but the game hunt didn’t stagnate the offense.

It took some impressive shooting for Boston to start the game 10-on-12 from 3-point range, but it’s not like everyone was just hot. The Celtics were more determined to attack Miami in the transition and early attack situations. Over two plays, Horford sprinted downfield to post a lag, leading to a 3 for Grant Williams and a layup for himself. On another, a well-timed screen from Williams and an accurate pass from Smart gave Tatum a layup.

Horford’s return meant the return of the lineup that had started most of the second round. As soon as Grant Williams checked in for Robert Williams in the first quarter, Tatum found Grant on a backcut for a layup. Minutes later, Brown passed out from a blitz to Grant, scouted for a 3.

The Celtics became a championship-caliber offensive team when they started making plays like these consistently. Udoka’s message has never changed: don’t force the issue, don’t play in a crowd, read the defense. It’s much easier to do this when the offense is spaced out.

The Grant-Horford lineup “created a lot of open shots, a lot of open 3s,” Udoka said. “And [Grant] got going, but also paved the way for our drivers.”

Tatum, who turned the ball over six times in Game 1’s horrific third-quarter slump, responded by using the Heat’s defensive aggression against them. In the third quarter, he set up Smart for two catch-and-shoot 3s – first he acknowledged the Heat’s early assist on a drive, then he calmly got the ball back against a blitz:

Miami tried to unbalance Boston with ball pressure and tried to ruin the game with zone defense, but the Celtics were ready for anything. Late in the third quarter, as Horford set up a high ball screen, Tatum moved the defense and slumped on a home run single with Smart, leading to two free throws:

“Coach Udoka just kept things very simple for us [against zone]”, Horford said. “He wanted us to do it a certain way and play with the rhythm and that’s what we did. Our guys kept getting the good reads. Jayson, Jaylen, Marcus, just kind of attacking downhill and making plays for us.”

During Thursday’s morning shootout, Grant Williams said Boston knew the Heat would “try to ruin the game.” For the Celtics, he said, “it’s just about being tough and being ourselves.” They may not be immune to deeply confusing streaks of offense, but those are relatively rare. They believe that this mature, balanced version of the team, one that makes simple, sound decisions, is who they really are.

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