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The Celtics fell apart late once again and find themselves on the brink against the Heat after dropping Game 2, 111-105.
Here are the takeaways as the series shifts back to Miami.
1. We have a great number of places we could start when describing why the Celtics lost on Friday, but we’ll open with Jaylen Brown, who submitted one of his worst performances of the playoffs. Brown was 7-for-23 from the field and 1-for-7 from deep with 16 points and two turnovers. In a game the Celtics lost by six, he was -24.
Much of the damage was done in the first half when Tatum sat for the first time. With Brown on the floor as the lone star, the Celtics let go of the rope and watched a 12-point lead slide away completely under the weight of a 17-2 run by the Heat.
But Brown also made a number of questionable decisions. With Tatum cooking in the first quarter, Brown missed a couple of shots that seemed to disrupt the rhythm. He took a couple of questionable 3-pointers. He tried to finish off a triple-teamed layup after an offensive rebound at an important moment in the fourth quarter.
Brown has been excellent in the postseason, but Friday’s misstep came at an enormously costly time for the Celtics.
2. A quick glance at Grant Williams’ box score suggests a pretty successful return to the rotation — nine points, 4-for-6 shooting, a 3-pointer, and a couple of assists in 25 minutes — and for most of Friday’s game, Williams played well.
Then Williams took it upon himself to bark at Jimmy Butler coming back down the court after hitting a 3-pointer, getting right in the Heat star’s face. Butler smirked, then scored over Williams and drew a foul. The duo then went head to head. They were separated and slapped with a technical apiece.
JIMMY BUTLER AND GRANT WILLIAMS‼️😳 pic.twitter.com/0yZjbsVzJ4
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 20, 2023
Perhaps Donovan Mitchell said it best.
Don’t poke the bear😂
— Donovan Mitchell (@spidadmitchell) May 20, 2023
Williams scored a floater and a dunk, but Butler went at him repeatedly, and Williams couldn’t get a stop. Butler’s relentless onslaught seemed to turn the tide, and the Celtics watched a nine-point lead disappear over a seven-minute stretch.
If you are going to try to get under a star’s skin, especially a star like Butler, it better work.
Williams still sounded fired up postgame talking to reporters, although he noted that he respects Butler “as a motherf—ing player” as well as personally.
“He got the best of me tonight, and at the end of the day it’s out of respect, because I’m not going to run away from it,” Williams said. “My mom always taught me, and my dad as well, you get your ass kicked and you don’t come back home until you come battle again. You either come back before you die or you come back and get a win, and I’m not willing to die in this Finals. I’m ready to f—ing get a win.”
3. The Celtics made the questionable decision to go away from Robert Williams and Derrick White down the stretch. White defended well and knocked down three of his five 3-point attempts. Williams, meanwhile, was part of a deadly pick-and-roll combination that the Heat never really solved with either man-to-man or zone defense.
4. For the second consecutive game, Tatum didn’t have a field goal in the fourth quarter. While he did knock down five free throws, and while the Celtics’ offense still benefited enormously by putting the ball in his hands, the Heat stymied the Celtics’ foundational offensive player late for the second consecutive game.
If the Celtics hope to rally, they need to figure that out immediately. Tatum had his hands in nearly every good thing that happened for the Celtics on Friday. He got to the rim repeatedly in the early going, and eventually, the Heat started double-teaming him — a strategy the Celtics are happy to pick apart. Then he hammered the Heat in the third, pouring in 15 points out of the pick-and-roll with Williams.
The Heat don’t really have answers for Tatum in this series when he doesn’t turn the ball over — he finished with five on Friday, but he scored a game-high 34 points with 13 rebounds and eight assists. Tatum’s Game 1 performance wasn’t particularly inspiring either, and he still got to the line 11 times and scored 30 points.
The Celtics, meanwhile, go to pieces when he’s on the bench. This team should be too deep to let that happen.
5. Joe Mazzulla started the double-big lineup with Robert Williams and Al Horford, but he went back to the lineup that started most of the season in the second half with White in place of Williams.
6. One of the major reasons behind the Celtics’ struggles in this year’s playoffs: Al Horford has struggled on both ends from the beginning. On Friday, he finished 1-for-5 from the floor and 0-for-3 from behind the arc, a -15 in his 28 minutes.
Horford became integral to the Celtics’ offense, spacing opponents to the 3-point line and opening up the paint for Tatum. The Celtics (quite reasonably in our opinion) expected one of the NBA’s best 3-point shooters during the regular season to continue making 3-pointers in the postseason. The fact that he hasn’t has been a disaster for the Celtics.
7. The Celtics shot 10-for-35 (28.6 percent) from three, just one more make than the Heat (9-for-26). The Celtics went 6-9 during the regular season when they shot worse than 30 percent from deep.
8. The Celtics aren’t finished. They found something that works consistently on the offensive end with the Tatum and Williams pick-and-roll. Jaylen Brown can bounce back. They play well when they absolutely have to play well.
But losing two games at home to the Heat stresses to a potential breaking point the theory that the Celtics play best with their backs up against the wall. The Celtics can still achieve everything they wanted to achieve this season, but their margin for error is completely gone.
Game 3 tips off at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday in Miami.