BOSTON — What happened in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals was nothing short of stunning.
We had witnessed the Miami Heat’s resilience before in these playoffs. We’d also witnessed the Boston Celtics’ flakiness. But Miami’s 111-105 victory on Friday was still a shocker.
Home teams had won the last 16 Game 2s in series that they trailed 1-0, and the average margin of victory in those games was 17.3 points. The Celtics should have been the more desperate team, knowing that they couldn’t afford to lose two games at home. At times, they looked the part. They had a 21-2 run spanning the first and second quarters and a 24-8 run in the third.
But they lost, because the Heat just will never die. Miami is now 6-2 in these playoffs in games it trailed double-digits, while every other team is 15-60, with none of the other 15 having a winning record.
In this game, the Heat faced two double-digit deficits, coming back from 12 down in the second quarter to take the lead before halftime and coming back from 12 down again early in the fourth.
“You start to wrap your mind around that it’s going to be a long game, 48 minutes,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “We had to battle through deficits in both halves, but we showed that grit and perseverance to be able to hang in there and make some plays.”
This was the Heat’s third win (they’re 3-2) in a game they trailed by double-digits in the fourth, with every other team in these playoffs being 1-53 in those situations. (The other win was from Atlanta in Game 5 of the first round in this same building.) The three wins after facing a double-digit, fourth-quarter deficits are tied for the most* in any postseason in the 27 years for which we have play-by-play data.
* Tied with last year’s Memphis Grizzlies, who were 3-4 after trailing by 10 or more in the fourth. The 2020 Heat (2-5) are one of the six other teams with multiple such postseason wins.
Here are some notes, quotes, numbers and film from a game that has the Heat two wins from being the first 8 seed in a full (82-game) season to reach the Finals:
1. Been here before
It was a game of runs that, naturally, went down to the wire. And it just seems that the Heat are much more comfortable in high-leverage situations.
Both of these teams have played 97 total games (regular season, Play-In and playoffs). And the Heat have played 16 more *clutch games (63) than the Celtics (47). Boston was 24-13 (second best) in the clutch in the regular season, but is now just 4-6 in the playoffs, while Miami is 6-2, having allowed their opponents to score just 64 points on 70 clutch possessions (91.4 per 100).
The Celtics missed some good looks down the stretch on Friday, but also had a few rough possessions, and they have twice as many fourth-quarter turnovers in this series (10) as the Heat (5). With the score tied and a little less than three minutes left, Marcus Smart simply dropped the ball.
The Heat, meanwhile, scored 36 points on just 23 fourth-quarter possessions (1.57 per) in Game 2. They executed, they made big shots, and they out-worked the Celtics on the glass. The biggest possession of the game may have been one where Miami got four shots, the last being a Bam Adebayo put-back dunk after he discarded Al Horford.
That was a physical play, but Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla agreed that his team’s inability to execute down the stretch was more mental than physical.
“It’s a series of discipline and a mind set,” he said. “So, yeah, it’s mental from the standpoint of who can make the right plays at the right times, who can make the simple plays, who can win those details and those margins. So, yeah, it’s definitely mental.”
“I think they outplayed us,” Jaylen Brown added. “They out-toughed us tonight and they found a way to make plays down the stretch and we didn’t.
2. Poking the bear
Grant Williams has been a rotational staple for the Celtics since he came into the league four years ago … until this past March, when Mazzulla didn’t play him at all on occasion. Williams had three DNPs in the first round, another in Game 6 of the conference semifinals, and a fifth in Game 1 of this series, when Payton Pritchard got (surprising) minutes.
But Williams checked in late in the first quarter of Game 2 and played more than 25 minutes, his second highest total in the playoffs. He did some good things and actually had Boston’s only three field goals in the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter.
“I just liked his physicality,” Mazzulla said. “I liked his rebounding, his ability to communicate defensively. I thought he gave us some really good minutes.”
But Williams also went forehead to forehead with Butler after the Heat star took him 1-on-1 and got an and-1 bucket in the paint with 6:22 remaining.
Now, this is the Eastern Conference finals, when players shouldn’t need any motivation beyond the chance to play for a championship. And Heat coach Erik Spoelstra thinks that Jimmy is going to be Jimmy whether or not an opponent is in his face.
“I love that gnarly version of Jimmy,” Spoelstra said, “but you get that regardless.”
Spoelstra’s players had a different opinion.
“I knew it was going to be good for us,” Caleb Martin said of the fourth-quarter confrontation. “Knowing Jimmy, at that point in the game, you get him going, we’ll take mad Jimmy any time. I knew that you could kind of see it in his eyes that he was ready to go after that.”
Butler kept seeking out his new nemesis. He scored on Williams on the very next possession, and then two more times (one, two) after that. All four of his fourth-quarter field goals were isolations against Grant Williams, and he agreed that their little chat after the first one did put some extra gas in his tank for those final six minutes.
“Yes, it did,” he said. “But that’s just competition at its finest. He hit a big shot. Started talking to me; I like that. I’m all for that. It makes me key in a lot more. It pushes that will that I have to win a lot more. It makes me smile. It does. When people talk to me, I’m like, OK, I know I’m a decent player, if you want to talk to me out of everybody that you can talk to.
“But it’s just competition. I do respect him, though. He’s a big part of what they try to do. He switches. He can shoot the ball. I just don’t know if I’m the best person to talk to [laughter].”
3. Robinson, outside and in
Another guy who hasn’t been a rotation regular is Duncan Robinson. The shooter was out of the Heat’s rotation for the last three months of the regular season and didn’t play in either of their Play-In games. But with Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo injured, Robinson has gotten regular minutes off the bench since Game 2 of the first round.
Still, he played less than seven minutes in Game 1 of this series and missed both his shots. And then, while his teammates didn’t shoot nearly as well as they did in Game 1, Robinson came up huge in Game 2, scoring 15 points in less than 21 minutes. Eight of those 15 came in the fourth quarter, when he took advantage of both Celtics named Williams.
Robert Williams III started his fourth straight game and was switching screens more on Friday. In fact, Game 2 was just the seventh time this season that the bigger Williams switched more than five ball-screens, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
But dribble hand-offs are different than standard ball-screens, when it’s easier for the screener’s defender to anticipate the action. When Bam Adebayo had the ball at the high post, Williams was sagging off and protecting the paint. But that made him unready to switch out to Robinson, when Adebayo handed the ball off.
Robinson drained one 3 with Williams sagging in the paint:
And then hit another on a more standard pick-and-roll (with Williams late to react) two possessions later.
But Robinson wasn’t just a 3-point shooter on Friday. He got two first-half layups when Derrick White was overplaying him on the perimeter and after those two 3s in the fourth, he got a layup when Butler set a back-screen that Grant Williams (maybe because he was focused on Butler) didn’t switch:
4. No busting the zone
Robinson, of course, can be a defensive liability. And the Celtics were more purposeful offensively than they were in Game 1, targeting him and Kevin Love in pick-and-rolls with Tatum. After three straight scores on possessions midway through the third quarter where Love’s man set a screen for Tatum, the Heat called timeout and Love was done for the night.
But the 2022-23 Heat played the most zone in 19 seasons of Synergy tracking, sometimes to throw a wrench in the opponent’s offensive flow and sometimes to protect their weaker defenders. With the Celtics doing some more pick-and-roll targeting, Miami played zone a lot in the second quarter (when most of the Celtics’ scores were in transition) and it helped them come back from that first double-digit deficit.
It also helped them come back from the second one. The Heat went back to the zone early in the fourth quarter and, basically, stayed in it for the entire period … because the Celtics couldn’t score against it.
“When you play against great teams,” Spoelstra said, “you just have to do whatever is necessary.”
Robert Williams did have a couple of paint scores against the zone, and Grant Williams got a dunk when an inside screen for Tatum had the Heat outnumbered on the weak side. But the Celtics couldn’t put enough of those scores together.
“We just haven’t figured it out in terms of how to exploit it every single time down the floor,” Brown said. “We got to recognize certain situations, and credit to them defensively, they have been able to hide some of their guys defensively in order to slow us down on offense.”
Spoelstra, as he often does, downplayed the significance of the zone.
“It’s not about the schematics or the Xs and Os,” he said. “You have to be committed to doing the multiple efforts to contain, to get to the three-point line, to contain their drives. They do all of that, and then they crash the glass, whether in the man or the zone.”
5. How far they’ve come
It bears repeating that the Heat lost their first Play-In game and were trailing the Chicago Bulls in the fourth quarter of the next one, facing elimination five weeks ago. Now, they’re two wins from the Finals in a conference that had the three best teams in the league. They haven’t been dominant (the Celtics still have the better playoff point differential), but they’ve been remarkably resilient.
The Heat are up 2-0, going back to Miami for the next two games, and thus far undefeated (5-0) at home in these playoffs. Game 3 is Sunday (8:30 ET, TNT).
John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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