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NBA

Nobody Pounces Like The Heat

2:26 PM EDT on May 18, 2023

BOSTON, MA - MAY 17: Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat looks on during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals 2023 NBA Playoffs on May 17, 2023 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

The Boston Celtics are the most talented, somehow most experienced team left in the playoffs, and yet for whatever reason they seem more prone than any of the other conference finalists to anemic stretches. This was a problem against a spunky, outgunned Atlanta team, who stole Game 5 on the road, nearly stole Game 6, and extended a series the Celtics should have put to bed, and it was a problem again against Philadelphia, who punked the Celtics in Boston to win Game 1 without Joel Embiid. The lapses weren't long or serious enough to cost them either series, but in the Miami Heat they may have found their match. If there is one team who will make you pay for letting go of the rope, it is the Heat, and Miami needed one quarter of Celtics misery to seize Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

"We won three out of the four quarters," Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said after the game, a statement that is both true and incredibly damning, a real Other than that Mrs. Lincoln–ass quote. The one quarter his team did not win was the third quarter, which the Heat won 46-25. Miami spotted Boston the first five points of the quarter before destroying them for the rest of the frame. Oftentimes when you see these sorts of runs, they tend to be precipitated by a bunch of turnovers, but no, the Celtics held onto the ball. They simply got beat by some honest, hard-nosed basketball from the more determined team. Bam Adebayo and Max Strus were flying out in transition, Jimmy Butler was punishing Boston's switching defense with brutal physical play, and Miami was far more dogged in defending the three-point line on one end and attacking it on the other.

There are two plays to highlight here. The first is an example of the Jimmy Butler experience. He gets blocked by Derrick White, only to grab his own rebound, attack Al Horford, and relocate to the corner for an open three. Players talk all the time about defenses hanging their heads and standing around after surrendering an offensive rebound, and Butler is not someone who you can relax against.

The second is the cleanest example of the Celtics losing focus. On the last play of the quarter, Malcolm Brogdon leaves Strus, who is shooting 38 percent on six threes a game in the playoffs, in the corner to shade over onto Cody Zeller, who has not attempted a three in over two years.

The Celtics would mount a near-comeback, only to fart it away on a pair of heinous turnovers, and though screwing up execution at a critical moment also echoes how the Celtics lost Game 4 of the Philly series, losing focus for a game-killing quarter was both why they lost and also more worrisome in the medium term. The Jimmy Butler Heat's whole thing is that they run harder than you, they punish every mistake, and they never once give an inch. They're beatable—they were the eight seed, after all, and Tyler Herro isn't even around right now—but not if you give them any room.

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