Now that’s more like it!
What we saw from the outset of the Celtics' 117-106 Game 3 win over Miami, was more than just a path towards winning a game.
As we reflect upon the victory that was by anyone’s account a must-win for Boston, the elements of what transpired on Saturday have the look and feel for being a blueprint for what the Celtics have to do to even up the Eastern Conference finals in Game 4 on Wednesday.
Just 32 seconds into the game, Boston’s Marcus Smart attacked the basket off the dribble, which was a process made easier because of the Celtics’ improved spacing.
It was an important play, but there were a number of contributing factors that came into play for Boston, which avoided a 3-0 series deficit that would have been a death sentence for its championship aspirations.
The Celtics' adjustments were plentiful in Game 3, but five key tweaks stood out from the rest.
DANIEL THEIS’ SPACING
While it is absolutely necessary for Daniel Theis to mix it up inside the paint with Bam Adebayo, that doesn’t mean he should spend all of his time fighting a battle that, to be frank, he’s not going to win.
So, what we saw in Game 3 more than the previous two was Theis spending more time away from the basket on offense and in doing so, assuring Adebayo would likely be close by.
That created more opportunities for others like Marcus Smart to attack the rim with Miami’s best rim protector far enough away from the basket.
Boston took advantage of this on their first offensive possession, which resulted in a three-point play by Smart.
Theis began the possession on the opposite side of the floor near the 3-point line. Adebayo gave Theis very little space on the perimeter, which means he was aware Theis is a career 34.4 percent 3-point shooter.
And with Adebayo near Theis with the Heat switching everything else, Jae Crowder wound up guarding Smart while Miami’s "rim protection” on this particular set was Duncan Robinson, which is EXACTLY what you would like to see in Boston.
THE WAR ON DUNCAN ROBINSON
A Division III player who transferred to Michigan before becoming one of the most prolific 3-point shooters in the NBA, Robinson is such a feel-good story.
But as impressive a shooter as Robinson is, his defense leaves a lot - A LOT - to be desired.
And the Celtics did as good a job in this series as we’ve seen when it comes to seeking out Robinson.
Can you blame ‘em?
Players guarded by Robinson in Game 3 were a collective 9-for-15 from the field with him as the primary defender.
In the previous video, the Celtics’ ball movement created a scenario in which Robinson' was the Heat's only rim protection.
But Boston’s efforts to force Robinson to defend one of the better-playing Celtics players also worked for most of the game.
On this particular play, Boston got a matchup in which Robinson was stuck with defending Jayson Tatum. And on the same play, Boston created matchups in which Adebayo, Miami’s top interior defender, was up near the top of the key defending Smart while Jimmy Butler had switched out to defend Daniel Theis, who was in perfect offensive rebounding position with Butler behind him.
Once again this left the Heat vulnerable to being attacked off the dribble by one of Boston’s better-scoring threats, which became easier to do with the lack of rim protection that exists for Miami when Adebayo is tasked with defending away from the perimeter.
The Celtics also used some middle pick-and-roll action to create more favorable matchups for them against Robinson.
A fairly basic middle pick-and-roll action had Brown being guarded by Robinson, which led to a lightly contested lay-up for Boston.
Robinson was guarding Marcus Smart at first, but a switch resulted in him having to defend Jaylen Brown at the rim.
Adding to the ease in which Boston got this score, was the fact that Miami’s lone layer of rim protection on that play was Goran Dragic, who had no chance of stopping Brown at point-blank range
And where was Adebayo on this play? Just outside of the paint defending Theis, who was squared up behind the 3-point line.
SMART’S DEFENSE ON DRAGIC
The one adjustment we all saw coming in Game 3, was Boston using Smart defensively for longer, more sustained stretches against Dragic.
NBA Advanced Stats show that Smart guarded Dragic for three minutes, 34 seconds in Game 3, longer than any other Celtics player.
That’s a sharp contrast from what we saw in Games 1 and 2 when there was at least one player who defended Dragic more than Smart.
In the three games, Smart has limited Dragic to just 1-for-5 shooting with just three points scored.
And in Game 3, Dragic scored just 11 points on 2-for-10 shooting from the field. Those two made baskets came against Boston bigs in Theis and Grant Williams.
Smart is a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team, so what he did in Game 3 was what a player with his credentials should be doing in a must-win kind of game.
DEFENDING THE 3-POINT SHOT
This was one of the easier adjustments for Boston to make because the solution didn’t require any additional film study or going through practice.
Stick with your man. Contest shots. Do those two things consistently and you can live with the results.
As this series has worn on, Boston’s defense against the Heat’s potent attack from beyond the 3-point line has improved.
In Game 1, Miami shot 44.4 percent (16-for-36) on three-point attempts.
Game 2 saw Boston clean up a few things and get that number down to 32.6 percent (14-for-43).
So it’s no coincidence that the Celtics' first breakthrough in the series came in Game 3 when they held the Heat to 27.3 percent (12-for-44) from 3-point range.
Boston did a much better job closing out on shooters in Game 3 which meant some weren’t shooting as much as they’re used to while others continued to fire away only for those shots to more times than not, be off the mark.
PLAY TO YOUR (OFFENSIVE) STRENGTHS
For many Celtics fans - and a few sports scribes like myself - one of the more frustrating things to watch was Boston trying to score in isolation plays after building up a big lead.
Not only has it more times than not proven itself to not work, but it’s one of the absolute greatest weaknesses with this team.
Because even when you look to take advantage of a mismatch, there’s still a certain amount of ball movement that typically comes into play.
In Games 1 and 2 of the Heat series, there were just too many instances in which players passed on the concept of keeping the ball movement at a high level which fueled the lead they are trying to maintain.
Boston is averaging 0.64 points per possession out of isolation plays in the playoffs.
What we have seen from this Celtics team, is that they are at their best when they are getting points in transition based upon what they are doing on the defensive end of the floor.
One of the more telling sequences from Game 3 was a Brown block that led to a breakaway dunk for Tatum.
Boston averages 1.16 transition points-per-possession which ranks third among playoff teams and tops among those still playing.
Such plays serve two purposes: They result in relatively easy points against a team that’s hard to score upon consistently.
And beyond that, it’s sticking to what you do well that works.
That sequence of plays -- the block by Brown, the breakaway dunk for Tatum -- were part of the Celtics' 12-2 run to close out the second quarter, the type of run that tends to mean more when the game is over and all the receipts that led to the win are tallied up.