Forsberg: How will Celtics respond to embarrassing stretch vs. Heat? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
MIAMI -- We’ll spare you the full blow-by-blow recap of the Boston Celtics’ utterly atrocious third quarter in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday night in Miami.
But by far the most disheartening part of a stretch that saw Boston go seven minutes without a field goal, kick away an eight-point halftime lead, and get absolutely punked when the Heat cranked up the intensity was a 33-second sequence midway through the frame.
In that impossibly small span, Jayson Tatum committed three of his six turnovers in the quarter, and what had been a manageable six-point deficit quickly doubled.
The most unforgivable moment came with 6:01 to play in the frame. Celtics coach Ime Udoka had just burnt a second timeout to scream at his listless team and, coming out to a designed set, Tatum threw an incredibly lazy, an unnecessarily no-look perimeter pass in the direction of Jaylen Brown.
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Jimmy Butler, perched liked a cornerback, easily jumped the route and turned into a transition bucket.
How did Tatum respond? He threw another haphazard pass to a double-covered Robert Williams five feet above the 3-point arc and Butler easily picked it before racing away for a dunk as steam came out of Udoka’s ears.
Teams can have bad quarters -- though rarely are they as unsightly as that third frame, in which Boston made just 2 of 15 field goals, turned the ball over eight times, and looked completely shook as Miami cranked up the intensity.
But what’s most discouraging is that all the concerns for the Celtics in this series were amplified during that frame.
Butler looked like a player who spent the last few days stewing over the suggestion that Tatum was the best player on the court. And after Tatum sent a message with a brilliant, rim-attacking first half, Butler chugged down a gallon of espresso at halftime and owned the final 24 minutes.
Could Marcus Smart and Al Horford have helped settle the Celtics in that instance? Absolutely. But the Celtics looked just fine in the first half without them and then came completely unglued after the intermission.
Butler dominated every aspect of the second half and ensured the Celtics would never truly threaten in the fourth quarter. P.J. Tucker shook off an injury and spent the second half hounding Tatum. A Boston team that has dominated on the road since early January looked eager for a reset button as the Heat pushed their lead as high as 20.
Adding insult to injury, Bam Adebayo showed up the podium after the game and, asked about Miami’s second-half turnaround, deadpanned, "I feel like our energy shifted. That was the biggest thing."
It surely wasn’t coincidental considering how the Celtics have made Jaylen Brown’s January proclamation that, "The energy is about to shift," a mantra for the team’s improbable surge. Heck, that quote decorated the rally towels handed out at Game 7 against the Bucks.
Game 1 against Miami felt like it would be a grind for Boston coming off an emotional and physical seven-game series with the defending champ Bucks. Losing Smart and Horford before the tip didn’t help matters. But the Celtics played so well in the first half that it was fair to wonder if they might still be able to steal the opener.
Instead, the Celtics are left to stew on an embarrassing third quarter. It was the second-worst quarter in Celtics playoff history (behind only Game 2 against the Cavaliers in 2017). Udoka will likely blister the team at the off-day film session and, yet again, these Celtics will be challenged to respond.
Can they bounce back like they did after dropping Games 1 and 5 at home against the Bucks? Will they get angry about their transgressions and play with more purpose in Game 2 against the Heat?
"Obviously, I don't want to turn the damn ball over and s--- like that, but I guess, throughout the course of a game, things happen and they go on runs. That's what they did," Tatum said.
"Throughout the course of the playoffs, we've done a great job of responding to runs after calling timeout, things like that. But for whatever reason we didn't today. I'll be the first one to say I'll take the blame for that. I've got to lead better. I've got to play better, especially in those moments. I'm just looking forward to responding next game."
Having Smart back on the court could help improve Boston’s chances to respond. Boston missed his ability to switch and defend Butler, while Smart’s steady ball-handling was sorely missed as the Celtics got sped up in the third quarter.
Derrick White, who so often has found ways to be a positive even when his shot hasn’t fallen, had a rough night on both ends of the floor. The Heat gave Celtics fans some unwanted 2020 bubble flashbacks by hunting Payton Pritchard at times in the second half.
Boston simply has to be ready when Miami cranks the intensity and physicality. The Celtics couldn’t have responded worse in Game 1.
It’s a long series and there are positives Boston can take from the other three quarters. But 36 minutes of decent basketball isn’t going to be enough in this series. And if you give Butler a chance to deliver a knockout blow in the fourth quarter, he’s going to put you on the mat.
Yet again, we’re left to see if the Celtics can dust themselves off.