The Boston Celtics find themselves in a 3-1 hole to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals and must win three straight games to prolong their 2019-20 season.
Impossible? No. But little about the team’s play the past couple weeks suggest a team poised to dominate the next 144 minutes of basketball. The Celtics, prone to maddening spurts of sloppy play, turned in a particularly uninspiring and turnover-filled effort in a must-have Game 4 and have now left themselves no margin for error the rest of the way.
What’s hard to process is how the Celtics could look so good in Game 3, lead for long stretches of Games 1 and 2, and yet turn in a total clunker with a chance to even the series in Game 4. It had felt fair to suggest that Boston was the more talented team in this series, but that they simply couldn’t get out of their own way at times.
But they have not been the better team. Miami, with an unflappable demeanor and carrying itself with a championship swagger, has played like the team best fit to represent the East.
So who is to blame for the predicament that Boston finds itself in? There are no shortage of slices to go around in this blame pie.
When a team fails to play to its potential, it invariably falls back on the coach. The criticism with Stevens has long been that he’s been able to get every last drop out of spunky underdogs but hasn’t quite been able to harness the full talents of more surefire contenders.
Stevens pushed all the right buttons in Game 3 while getting his team to relentlessly attack the basket and crack a Miami zone that had given his team fits. But the Celtics carried little over to Game 4. The team was lethargic and sloppy out of the gates and Stevens had some curious rotation decisions.
With the Heat taking Kelly Olynyk out of their mix, Stevens elected to go with Robert Williams over Enes Kanter as first big off the bench and got rewarded with solid minutes in which Boston played some of its most inspired ball. That was seemingly a solid chess play. But then there was a random Semi Ojeleye cameo in the first half (a rough four minutes due to some early foul trouble for Boston) and Grant Williams logged only a brief 46-second stint in the second half. More questionable: Williams played less than four minutes after the intermission.
It’s hard to fault Stevens for leaning on his best players down the stretch and yet Boston’s Best 5 struggled to get stops and — when they did — they gave up utterly maddening offensive rebounds at the worst times.
Stevens also didn’t have any answer for cooling off Tyler Herro, who roasted just about every individual defender that took a turn on him, especially Kemba Walker who had a particularly rough defensive night.
With all that said, Stevens wasn’t the one who turned the ball over 19 times. He wasn’t the one staring at available rebounds. Before the game, he implored his players to attack and they ignored him for the first 24 minutes. Stevens simply has to hold his players accountable for not playing with the necessary effort.
Tatum was so bad in the first half of Game 4 that just about everyone was wondering if he had some sort of undisclosed ailment. Three minutes into the game, he rifled a crosscourt pass so high that springy Jaylen Brown couldn’t even leap to haul it in as as the ball flew into the Miami bench. It was one of six turnovers on the night for Tatum.
The most head-slapping of those came with little more than 2 minutes to play and Miami up 5. The ball swung to Tatum with a seemingly open 3-point look from the right wing but he instead he tried to put the ball on the floor to drive and traveled. The Celtics don’t have a chance without Tatum erupting for 28 second-half points and yet even he crumbled on the crunch-time stage.
The first half was just mindboggling. Even at age 22, this isn’t Tatum’s first dance on the big stage. The Celtics needed him to be great in a must-win situation and he turned in one of the worst 24 minutes of his season.
EVERYONE NOT NAMED KEMBA: CRUNCH-TIME WOES
Let’s just take a minute to process how badly Boston has shot the ball in crunch-time (score within 5 points, last 5 minutes) through the first four games of this series. Take away Kemba Walker’s 14 points on 4-for-7 shooting and the rest of Boston’s roster has generated 15 points on 5-of-22 shooting. The Celtics are 1-for-13 on 3-pointers in crunch time against the Heat.
Here’s a closer look at Boston’s individual crunch-time numbers through four games:
The Heat have absolutely dominated when the game is in the balance. Jimmy Butler alone has 17 points on 5-of-8 shooting in crunch time. Goran Dragic has 15 on 4-of-6 shooting. The Heat don’t need Herro to be great in that moment (he’s still got 8 points on 2-of-6 shooting) when they’ve got a couple of veteran closers. Which brings us to…
Ainge will surely get some renewed flak for not upgrading Boston’s bench earlier in the season, particularly when juxtaposed to the boost Miami has gotten from in-season additions Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala. We’re not sure we’re ready to go that far. Marvin Williams probably wasn’t swinging this series as a buyout addition if he had chosen Boston over Milwaukee. And the Celtics weren’t overpaying to get a 7th or 8th man.
Whenever the conversation starts to shift to next season, it’s fair to suggest, though, that Boston has a particular need for two things on its bench: 1) A veteran, ideally with playoff experience who can steady the team, even if it's just with their voice, and 2) Additional bench shooting to take some stress off the top 6.
Still, we’d make the case that the roster Ainge has assembled is talented enough to be in the Finals this year. The players simply haven’t played to their potential in this series.
After a strong start to Game 4, Walker faded. Stevens seemed to give him an extended rest in the first half, presumably to have him fresh in crunch time, but Walker still got lifted for a two-minute stretch with 5:38 to play, either because his defense was an issue or Stevens was trying to gas him back up for the final stretch.
Either way, Walker had just eight second-half points on 2-of-6 shooting. He only took two shots over the final 9 minutes and missed them both (he got fouled on a 3-pointer with 9 seconds left to give the Celtics at least a final gasp).
The Celtics simply need more from Walker, especially when Tatum was having his first-half clunker. To his credit, Walker did not commit any of Boston’s turnovers during 34 minutes of floor time but he needs to impact both ends better at this stage.
Shield your eyes: Smart was 3-of-12 shooting overall, 1-of-8 beyond the 3-point arc, and had 4 turnovers. There was a stretch from midway through the second quarter until 3:17 to play where Smart missed seven straight shots.
Most egregiously, three of his turnovers were in the final frame, including one late-game bounce pass that went directly into Gordon Hayward’s knee cap. On a night the Celtics need to be shaken from their doldrums, Smart couldn’t provide the spark.
Hard to get on a dude who skipped the birth of a child and gave you 14 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists over 30 minutes. The only complaint: Hayward had a lot of good 3-point looks, especially in that ragged first half, and his shot simply remains a bit rusty from the time missed due to the ankle injury.
All of which is to say, the Celtics need just about everyone to be a little bit better in this series. It’s staggering to look up after four games and see the total point output is exactly even at 441 points for each team. It underscores the opportunities that Boston let slip away in the first two games.
So what happens next? The Celtics have to decide if they’re going to fight to stay in this series and hold themselves accountable when they don’t play to their standard. Are they going to attack the basket and do all the things that made them so successful in Game 3? Are they going to find a way to be better in crunch time?
Rallying from a 3-1 hole won’t be easy. The Celtics have to want it. They gotta want it WAY more than they did in Game 4.