If the Boston Celtics had shown half as much emotion on the court Thursday night as they did in the locker room after a head-shaking Game 2 loss to the Miami Heat, then they wouldn’t be in this predicament.
Forty-eight hours after fumbling away a 14-point fourth-quarter lead while letting Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals slip away, the Celtics stumbled through an embarrassing third-quarter in which they coughed up what had been a 17-point first-half lead. Boston still had a chance to steal a win but wilted at the finish line as Miami emerged with a 106-101 triumph to take a 2-0 series lead.
Reports from outside the Celtics locker room suggested an inharmonious scene with Marcus Smart, unsurprisingly, the most identifiable voice amid the commotion. The Celtics could have used some of that fight in a turnover-and-lethargy-filled third quarter, or again at the finish line.
Now we’ll find out if the airing of grievances was enough to inspire the Celtics to finally put together a full 48 minutes of basketball that has escaped them for much of the last two rounds of the playoffs.
So what exactly happened behind closed doors? While some like Kemba Walker tried to downplay the commotion, Jaylen Brown admitted the team had itself a vent session. For as much attention as that has drawn, it’s worth remembering that emotional locker rooms are not uncommon. They’re simply amplified in the playoffs, especially in the unique environment.
But it’s clear that players felt the need to get things off their chests after the way the first two games unfolded.
“A lot of emotions just flying around,” said Brown. “Obviously, we feel like we could have won, we should have won, but we didn’t. So just a lot of emotions flying around. That’s it.”
Here’s the important part: How do the Celtics harness the emotions from that locker room confab? This has been such a tight-knit team all season, it’s hard to imagine they would splinter now. But what’s undeniable is that Boston has eliminated its margin for error in this series. The Celtics have to win four of the next five games to punch their pass to the NBA Finals. They need to play more consistent basketball from here on out.
What’s going to gnaw at Boston players during the 48-hour ramp up to Saturday’s Game 3 is that the opportunity has been sitting there for them. It’s not far-fetched to suggest that Boston should be up 2-0 now. They improbably sputtered late in Game 1 and fell into a familiar third-quarter trap in Game 2.
The film won’t make them feel any better. There were some maddening instances — most of them self-inflicted but some outside Boston’s control as well. The referees improbably converted what should have been a shot-clock violation into a jump ball that Miami won and generated a four-point play. Jayson Tatum couldn’t stop turning the ball over on drives, either by punting the ball off his knee or drawing whistles when he barreled into defenders.
“Man, they outplayed us. They outplayed us,” Walker said of the third quarter. "It’s really unacceptable on our behalf. It was just a really bad quarter for us. We didn’t continue to do the things that we did to get us up and get us that lead. I think we got kind of comfortable and those guys, they took great advantage of it. They played hard. They played really hard. They played a lot harder than us. They wanted it.”
And it kept happening early in the fourth quarter. Boston’s lead was down to five early when Brad Wanamaker sent a lazy, one-handed inbounds bounce pass towards Smart some 25 feet away and the Heat pounced (though they somehow didn’t turn it into immediate points for a change).
Then, in a prime example of the differences on this night, Walker got stripped by Jimmy Butler with Boston up three with 3:48 remaining. Butler never stopped pursuing a ball that probably should have bounced harmlessly out of bounds and managed to save it behind his back. That would have been amazing enough but Butler kept on sprinting towards the basket and ended up finishing a dunk before Boston’s defense could retreat.
With Miami up five with 90 seconds to go, Butler deflected a Smart inbound and tracked down the ball before dumping it off to Jae Crowder for a layup that all but sealed the game.
Just unforgivable lapses in judgment from a team that simply can’t get out of its own way lately.
The postgame outburst by Smart? It’s probably not all that surprising given Boston’s frustration. And his teammates know how passionate he is.
"That’s why we love him. He plays with passion, he’s full of fire, and that’s what I love about him most to be honest,” said Brown. "He has that desire and that will, and we need him to continue to have that. … Who Marcus is, I love him for it. We’ve got to get ready to come back with that same fire and add it to Game 3.”
This isn’t Smart’s first locker room outburst. Last season, he lit into his teammates at the tail end of a bad road trip. Asked later why he felt the need to speak up, Smart noted, "I hate losing. I probably hate losing more than I love winning.”
The Celtics have not yet played in this series like winning is the most important thing. There are stretches where they look like the clear-cut best team on the floor, all while building double-digit leads, then they operate like they’ve forgotten completely how to do the fundamentals of basketball.
Now they don’t have a choice. Boston is down 2-0 and any hope of pushing their season into October almost certainly requires a win on Saturday. It’s fair to wonder if this team is capable of putting together 48 full minutes against a quality opponent.
Boston has now lost five of its last six crunch-time tilts — games within five points in the final five minutes — and the team hasn't executed at an elite level when the game is in the balance.
The Celtics better show up with the same sort of fight they had in the locker room — the fight they lacked on the court at the end of the last two games — if they’re going to make this series interesting.